Plot Summary: Once upon a time there was an infant son and heir born to the Groan family of Gormenghast Castle. His name was Titus and being so young he was yet unaware of the long line of history and tradition of which he stood in line to inherit. But things were turned on their head (quite literally) on the day of his christening, and strange events began to unfold that are even stranger than the world into which he was born.
My Book Review: The Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake has been on my reading list from very early on. I believe it was a discovery made while perusing the Dover catalog. I really had no idea what it was about, which sometimes leads to interesting discoveries. In this case, it was a very interesting discovery indeed, and has become one of my top reads for this year so far.
This isn’t normally a book I would have picked out for myself, so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know what it was about. I’m proud of myself for completing such a thick book. I’m also usually more action-oriented, whereas this is more character driven. There is not a lot of action and when there is there is always a slow buildup to it, making those scenes stand out more. I tend to quickly forget details and character names of a lot of the books I read, but not this one. The scenes in this book stand out clear and defined in my mind, in large part due to great detailed descriptions. With names like ‘Prunesquallor’, ‘Nannie Slagg’, and ‘Countess Gertrude Groan’, they’re hard to forget. And the author’s own illustrations of many of them are wild and memorable as well.
Even better than just the names and pictures are the full-bodied characters themselves. You really have to read the book for yourself to make them come alive, and once you do I can almost guarantee they will live forever in your mind. The insane Lord Sepulchrave, the 76th Earl of Gormenghast, who thinks he’s an owl; his epileptic twin sisters Cora and Clarice who are stupid and vacant-minded; the vain, middle aged Irma Prunesquallor in love with a teenager; and the sociopathic Steerpike, the young puppet master behind the inhabitants of the castle. These aren’t all the colorful people of the story; there are many more besides. It’s ironic that the title character really doesn’t play a major role in this first of the series. In fact it really only covers the first year or two of his life, but all the important things that occurred during it.
It’s hard to put a finger on why I liked this novel so much. At times it seemed rather dark, and longwinded, yet the wonderful descriptions and the weirdness of it all lured me on. The author had a way of making even peeling paint sound interesting. I think one of my favorite scenes was the description of Fuchsia’s attic hideaway. Who wouldn’t want a great hidey-hole retreat like that all to oneself?
Is this book fantasy? I would not call it that, although it is set in a fantasy world. If you go into it expecting fantasy, you might be bored. It is not set in a particular time era, though the closest one might get is the 1880’s-1910 era with a fantastical twist.
Some say this book reads of despair and futility. It is dark and the people of Gormeghast do live futile lives of pointless ritual, but the unusual turn of things as Titus grows gives a glimpse that things may change with Titus as heir… ?
One caution: there is one chapter in which a character, Keda, has a one-night stand with a lover.
I’ve read that there is more than one audio drama of this series, and also a movie, but I don’t see how any of them can be as good as the novel. If I ever come across them, I’ll surely review it and post if worth it.
Titus Groan won’t be for everyone. But I’ve certainly learned that character-driven books can be just as interesting (or even more so) than the plotted ones. I’m not sure what the other books in the series will be like, but I can’t wait to see what will happen in the next installment of Titus Groan’s life. The entire series are as follows:
- Titus Groan
- Boy in Darkness
- Titus Alone
- Titus Awakes
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