Jackson’s Booker-shortlisted book is a real gem. It’s a strange amalgam of fictionalised history, memoir and gothic horror – gothic body horror, come to that.
It takes its genesis in the life of William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 5th Duke of Portland, but rapidly diverges from the accepted record. Using a combination of diary entries and testimonies or statements, the mole-like additions to his home at Welbeck Abbey are described, as is his increasing infirmity. There’s a lovely turn of phrase in the Duke’s private reminiscences, and the reader if left wondering if it’s the result of a poetic soul, or of dementia.
The image of one man’s construction of tunnels as a reflection of his struggle to excavate his own past is a little heavy-handed, though it’s not quite as obviously flagged as I’m making out. There is tragedy in the book, though – at both ends of life – and the usual suspects (phrenologists, ghosts, oddly gifted children) appear to ensure the narrative never settles too comfortably.
This is a very fine, lightly flawed work. If you’ve the slightest love for Victoriana, the visual architecture of Gormenghast or the battle old age often poses between dementia and death, then this is a must-read. For something set in so limited a place – events take place either at the Duke’s home, in Edinburgh or in his mind’s eye – there is an expanse to behold.
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