16 January 2020

Review - The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by HG Parry

Cover by Lisa Marie Pompilio
The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep
HG Parry
Orbit, 23 January 2020
PB, 452pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy of The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep.

I've noticed before that bookish people like books about books (and about bookish people). Here's one, squared: Charley Sutherland, a rare and precocious talent who took his degree at Oxford when he was 13, possesses the ability to "read" characters (and things) out of books.

This ability - or curse - has dogged Charley all his life, the "readings" often being involuntary and sometimes, downright dangerous. It has also come between him and his brother Rob. Now, it seems, it has attracted rather more dangerous attention, as Artful Dodgers, Fagins, Dorian Grays and Uriah Heaps appear on the streets of Wellington, New Zealand and begin to cause trouble.

Resolving things will reveal secrets Charley's family has kept for decades, and force them to confront unwelcome truths...

I have to say that I approached this book with a degree of wariness. Let's get the inevitable out of the way first. This isn't a Thursday Next-alike. I know many people love those books, but they won't find this hitting that same spot. Put another way if, like me, you find TN just a bit too... arch... then Uriah Heep ISN'T LIKE THAT. There are many devices and tropes in literature, and characters coming off the page isn't new or unique, but Parry employs it intelligently and creatively, shrewdly deploying the tools of literary criticism to build her world. Sherlock Holmes, David Copperfield and the White Witch (from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are not simply floated from the page. They reflect the particular "reading" that creates them, and therefore the intentions, purpose and personality of their reader (as well as the prejudices and assumptions of the reader's time). Two instances can differ greatly (and at one point there are no fewer than five Mr Darcys here - all different). It's a satisfying idea, well executed and ripe with scope for cross purposes, conflict and misunderstanding.

I really enjoyed the way that Parry gave her world complexity and moral depth. Having read a character out of a book, Charley can also "read them in" - banish them back to their story. But the characters are not just phantoms, they are fully formed people who have desires and fears, who can bleed and die. Who can argue for their existence. They are people. What does it mean to "read away" such a rounded, complete personality? What might they do, faced with the risk of such oblivion?

And that's even before you consider the tricksy nature some of the characters were imbued with by their authors... and how they might have changed since coming out of their books.

As if that wasn't enough to populate this sprawling, enticing novel we also have - in the two very different brothers - a fascinating study in family dynamics. Charley, the golden boy, is the younger of the two and there are layers of both resentment and adoration between them, layers which are gradually stripped away as Rob narrates the story. There are one or two parts from other viewpoints, but it's mostly Rob - which can at times be frustrating as Rob is, sometimes, a bit of a pig headed idiot. To take one example, Charley's gift is known to the whole family and Rob is frequently called on to help resolve situations with it. Rob's partner, Lydia, notices that something is wrong (all those phone calls at 3am!) ands wants to know more - but Rob point blank refuses to tell her. He's got no problem admitting there is a Secret but, no, Lydia, you can't know what it is. It's family business. This is of course a Big Mistake as Rob eventually accepts, yet he compounds it by keeping other secrets fro others (an Even Bigger Mistake, as it turns out). In short, Rob is annoying and Charley, well Charley just feels more human. Of course this tension between the two brothers is key to the story indeed it really is the story, the relationship between the two of them, as part of their family, is at the heart of everything.

It's an enjoyable and profound book. Behind the high concept there is a very touching, very true take on how we narrate our own lives and how that story includes, or doesn't, those who are close to us. There is a lot of Dickens here, a focus being the influence on him of the notorious blacking factory and how that drove his rage against injustice and cruelty - but, as Charley remarks somewhere, there is much more to Dickens than anger, you can take different things his books and a "shallow" reading should be avoided. That's where the different readings, and the characters they bring to life, act as a rather beautiful metaphor made real (one definition of fantastical literature).

There's a lot of Dickens here, in the way that the making of those brothers and the branching of their lives forms the core of the book.

There's also a lot of Dickens here, in the gallery of vivid, eccentric and vital characters that Parry brings to the page (indeed, almost off it and into the Real World).

If I have one reservation, it's that the story takes off with both brothers adult, Charley's ability well known to the family and with the resulting weird stuff an inherent part of their lives. That means we don't discover it, rather there is a lot of briefing, mostly by Rob, to bring us up to date on what Charley can do. I felt at times that got in the way of establishing their (delicate) relationship, which possibly made Rob even more annoying than he need be (once I understood Rob, I found him much more sympathetic). I would stress that is a small reservation. This is an exciting, bold and ultimately engaging fantasy adventure with a weirdly compelling logic all of its own (Charley can defeat monsters by, literally, reinterpreting them) and which uses established literary characters in some very shrewd ways.

It also has a biting vein of commentary (I had never considered how unfair Dickens is to Heap) as well as a great deal of humour (especially at the expense of literary theory) and some poignant moment - as, for example, when a lion is "summoned" from a child's storybook, escapes, and is shot several days later. The "summoner" feels the creature's death. These are not paper creations, they are flesh and blood and there is a connection between summoner and summoned.

A fun book to read, and thought provoking too. Definitely recommended.

For more information about The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, see the Orbit website here.