In this case, the tomes are “Observatory Mansions,“ the first novel from English playwright and illustrator Edward Carey, and “The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives,“ by Sebastian Faulks, the bestselling author of “Birdsong“ and “Charlotte Gray,“ which was recently made into a film with Cate Blanchett.
Both are compelling works that breathe new air into their respective genres. There‘s never a shortage of powerful, moving, eloquent, or stylishly crafted books in the literary world, but if one subscribes to the idea that there really are no new ideas, you can go along with the reasoning that it becomes more difficult to introduce a sense of wonder or discovery into a particular category of storytelling. Happily, these two books provide a strong argument to that thinking.
Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey
Meet the Orme family, whose “Magnificent Ambersons“-like estate in an unknown city has crumbled into disrepair and is now a bizarre apartment complex that houses a wildly eccentric group of tenants. One of those is Francis Orme, who is a living statue by trade and practices “inner and outer stillness“ as a way of life and steals precious possessions from others for his private museum.
In the opening chapter, narrator Francis introduces us to himself ans his home:
“I wrote white gloves. I lived with my mother and father. I was not a child. I was thirty-seven years old. My bottom lip was swollen. I wore white gloves though I was not a servant. I did not play in a brass band. I was not a waiter. I was not a magician. I was the attendant of a museum. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to touch anything with my bare hands. I wore white gloves so that I would not have to look at my own hands. I live in a city, as many people do, a small city, an unspectacular city, not very famous city. I lived in a large building, but had access only to a small part of it. Other people lived around me. I hardly knew them. The building we lived in was a huge, four-storey cube in the neo-classical design called Observatory Mansions. Observatory Mansions was dirty. Black stains like large unhealing scabs fouled the exterior, and sprayed on its grey walls in red and yellow car paint were various messages delivered at night by some anonymous vandal. The most immediately noticeable being: And even you can find love.“
In addition to Francis, who (along with the book) seems destined for a Tim Burton film, the inspired cast of characters includes his parents, who havent interacted in years, a man who is either sweating or crying, a TV-obsessed spinster, and a woman who acts more like a dog than the real thing. Into this entourage comes Anna Tapp, a woman who is slowly going blind who arouses long forgotten memories and never-before-discovered emotions, and sets into motion a chain of events that are as unpredictable as they are unforgettable.
There are many writers whom author Carey seems to invoke, but the end result is uniquely his.
Upon its publication in England, John Fowles called it “easily the most brilliant fiction I‘ve seen this year,“ and one can argue a strong case for that, as well.
The Fatal Englishman: Three Short Lives by Sebastian Faulks
This book is notable for several reasons, among them being that this is the first work of non-fiction ever attempted by Faulks, and in it, he explores the lives of three quite remarkable Englishmen - each a beacon of sorts to his generation, and a light cut off while quite young.
The three subjects are: Christopher Wood, a charming, handsome painter who lived most of his short life of 29 years in the beau monde of 1920‘s Paris, until he killed himself, frustrated by the conflicts of ambition and achievement; Richard Hillary, a WWII fighter pilot who wrote an acclaimed account of his experiences, “The Last Enemy,“ but died while he was 23-years-old in a strange training accident while defying doctors orders to stay grounded due to burn injuries; and Jeremy Wolfenden, a journalist, spy, alcoholic, open homosexual, and academic who was hailed by his contemporaries as one of the brightest of his generation, though notoriously reckless.
Faulks‘ portraits are each vivid, and he captures an extraordinary amount of detail in quick turns of phrase, as evidenced by the opening paragraph of Woods story:
“One day in the spring of 1921 a beautiful young Englishman set off for Paris to become the greatest painter the world had ever seen. His name was Christopher Wood and he was nineteen years old. Until he took the boat for Calais on 19 March he was working for a fruit importer in the City of London. He was the son of a doctor in the North West of England, and his sudden disappearance to France confirmed his family‘s worst fears. Although Christopher wore shirts from the best outfitters in Jermyn Street, was well-mannered and polite to his parents, he seemed to have no understanding of middle-class convention. Some combination of circumstances had combined with a fierce streak in his character to make him wild and ambitious. He was determined to be a painter, and the intensity of his desire was frightening to his parents.“
All three of the lives here were brief and brilliant, ambitious and addicted, different and doomed, and vital and vexed. Wolfenden‘s story is particularly well-crafted, and as Faulks relates their tales to that of a country in the midst of serious change, he symbolizes Britain‘s own loss of identity and innocence.