Reviewed by Susan Osborne
Undermajordomo Minor is Patrick deWitt’s third novel. His second, The Sisters Brothers, was a darkly comic western set in mid-nineteenth century Oregon which followed the careers of two assassins, brothers in arms. It met with a wave of critical acclaim, both in his native Canada and in the UK where it was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker prize. No one who has read it will be at all surprised to hear that the film rights have been sold but let’s hope it’s to an indie production company rather than Hollywood. Undermajordomo Minor is entirely different but shares the same vividly cinematic quality not to mention a memorable, if tricky, title.
It opens with seventeen-year-old Lucy Minor leaving home and setting off to take up the titular position of undermajordomo at a castle somewhere in the mountains to the east of Bury where he was born. His mother sees him off from the cottage door, barely waiting for Lucy to close the garden gate. Lucy is glad to be on his way, hoping for adventure, convinced that he is meant for better things. And adventures there are, beginning with pickpockets on the train – later to play a significant part in Lucy’s life – then a war raging in the village below the castle to which he is bound. When he finally arrives he finds just two staff: the irascible Agnes whose cooking is as peppery as her temper, and Olderglough, the affable majordomo, who shows him room after shabby untenanted room, then tells him to make sure he locks his bedroom door at night. All seems bleak and dismal – even Olderglough’s mynah bird is glum – but deWitt has set us up for another well-spun yarn promising ‘many things, including but not limited to true love, bitterest heartbreak, bright-white terror of spirit and an acute homicidal impulse’.
Undermajordomo Minor has more than a touch of the Gothic fairytale about it: a dour castle sitting atop a remote mountain, warring factions complete with a heroic ‘exceptionally handsome’ captain, a fair lady with whom our own hero falls in love and a satisfying arc of redemption. DeWitt’s writing is often strikingly vivid: ‘leading him away from his manias the way a child might be led away from a carnival’ describes the mad Baron’s gradual return to sanity beautifully; ‘he admired her the way one might admire an avalanche’ neatly conveys Lucy’s apprehensive fascination with the Baroness he has summoned with a letter. It’s also very funny. Lucy is an excellent guide to this fantastical world, beginning as a self-absorbed young boy, given to lying and spying on all and sundry, but growing into a man who knows the value of love and when truth should be told. As for that cinematic quality, it brought to mind Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in its almost cartoon-like depictions of the odd world in which Lucy finds himself. A thoroughly entertaining novel which comes already shortlisted for a prize – this year’s Scotiabank Giller, the Canadian equivalent of the Man Booker.
Susan Osborne blogs at A Life in Books – Never, ever leave home without a book
Patrick deWitt, Undermajordomo Minor, (Granta Books: London, 2015). 9781847088697, 352 pp., trade paperback.
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