Good things come in threes! I thoroughly enjoyed three feather-light classics this month, Edward Carey’s Heap House, Colette’s The Innocent Libertine, and Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club.
1. While reading Heap House, written and illustrated by Edward Carey, I thought, “It’s ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ meets Edward Gorey and Mervyn Peake!” This eerie fantasy, the first of the Iremonger trilogy, is set in an alternate nineteenth century. The extended family of the Iremongers lives in a huge mansion, Heap House, built on “the heaps,” i.e., hills of trash and rubble collected from London. Servants toil in the heaps, wearing gas masks and tied to human anchors as they salvage valuable objects.
Heap House is told in two alternating narratives. The first narrator is 15-year-old Clod, a brilliant, sickly orphan with a special gift: objects speak to him. Each Iremonger is presented with an object at birth: Clod’s is a bath plug; his cousin Pinalippy has a doily; and an aunt a brass door handle. The owners must carry their birth objects at all times. When Clod enters a room, objects speak their names to him. His bath plug says, “James Henry Hayward.’
Lucy Pennant, an orphan recently brought to live at Heap House, relates the story of the servants downstairs. After she arrives, the objects, ranging from utensils to furniture, start acting strangely. She meets Clod while cleaning the fireplaces upstairs and they share information and form an alliance.
I loved this book! which was praised by Kelly Link and Eleanor Catton. And it is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. (And I have two to go.)
2. Colette’s The Innocent Libertine. Colette explains in the preface that this slight novel was intended as a short story, but her first husband, Willy, saw the commercial value and insisted that she pad it. Then she wrote a sequel. Later she welded the two stories into one novel, but fears “that this definitive edition itself fails to… reconcile me completely to the first aspects of my career as a novelist.”
It is charming but feather-light, not up to Colette’s usual standard. In Part I, she introduces the heroine, Minne, a schoolgirl who pores over sensational newspapers while she pretends to do schoolwork. She is fascinated by a column called”Paris at Night”: she loves the stories of a gang of brigands living in the boulevards of Paris. She thinks the gang is romantic: she likes their names,Copper-nob, the Moth, the Viper, and Curly. She fantasizes that a young man she has seen sleeping in the park is Curly. When she sneaks out one night, she discovers the world is not like “Paris at Night.”
In Part 2, Minne is unhappily married to her handsome cousin, who had a crush on her as a teenager. She is unfulfilled and wonders what other women find in love. Her ideas of sex and romance are as naive as her girlhood vision of the gangs of Paris. Will she ever find love?
When you’ve read all of Colette, read this.
3. I’ve always wanted to join a stuffy club where men lounge in comfortable chairs and smoke cigars. (Are women still barred?) In Dorothy Sayers’s The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928), the fifth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, the amateur detective hero, Wimsey, is at his wittiest and most dashing as he solves a puzzle plot full of red herrings and twists.
It opens at the club: Captain George Fentiman, a shell-shocked, unemployed veteran of World War I, tells Wimsey that he would resort to crime if he could.
Wimsey gently, humorously reins in his friend, who is on the verge of a breakdown.
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” said Wimsey lightly. “Crime’s a skilled occupation, y’know. Even a comparative imbecile like myself can play the giddy sleuth on the amateur Moriarty. If you’re thinkin’ of puttin ‘ on a false moustache and lammin’ a millionaire, don’t do it…”
Then George’s grandfather, General Fentiman, is found dead in the club’s library, in an advanced state of rigor mortis. The time of death is important to quarreling heirs, because the general’s sister also died that morning: if she died first, her fortune belonged to the general, and would go to George and his brother, Robert.
Wimsey examines timetables, romps through Europe, and interviews artists (one of whom half jokingly proposes to him: he sweetly refuses).
Really a great read! One of Sayers’s best!