This book is wry, and tender, and heart-breaking. Full of socially mal-adjusted individuals who nevertheless feel regret and longing and despair. Even if, like Francis Orme, they can only bear to feel the world while wearing white gloves.
Intriguing setting and story concept: a building full of misanthropes and cranky lonely hearts gets their predictable, comfortable world turned upside down when a new tenant arrives. Observatory Mansions has a lot going for it: atmospheric, neoveau-gothic backdrop and a cast of quirky, twisted characters who live hiding behind the heavy drapes of regret and longing. Edward Carey tenderly reveals their stories to us in a meandering fashion, as if to ease us into this uncomfortable, mold-ridden world. So I had high expectations; I expected a kind of parallel, grotty magical universe akin to Alice in Wonderland or something written by Shirley Jackson.
Where the book failed for me was in the writing style. I couldn't get into it, even though I thoroughly acknowledge the literary necessity of it. Francis Orme likes objects. People seem to be subsumed by the objects around them. So Carey writes in this repetitive, droning style, which reflects the mental state of the narrator and his sense of order and things-in-their-place-ness. You'll get lists and lists of things, which in their own way is the only way our emotionally stunted narrator can tell his story. In that way, the book almost feels like an inventory of human frailties. It's got a very visual and tactile feel to it, which makes me think this might have worked better as a graphic novel. (Do we need all the text and narration?)
Ironically the book's clipped, declarative style is what others found so captivating. Really?! I'm flummoxed. I'm a fan of the postmodern sleight of hand or two, but only when the trickery is filled with a little more intrigue than what we get in this book. You can't carry a story by just throwing a bunch of grotesque characters together, no matter how charming they are. Something needs to happen.
Sadly, I was largely immune to the charms of this oddball, but I admire its ambitions.
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