A masterclass in rendering magic from the mundane, with the help of lively typography and footnotes
|Cover design and illustration by Natalie Chen|
This book is one of the most entertaining tales I have read in a very, very long time—and made so solely by the narrative voice. I know it’s traditional in reviews to begin with a quick description of plot or premise, but I also like to start with the things a book does best, and in this book, that is the narrative voice. And when I say ‘narrative voice’, I don’t mean the breezy, sarcastic, quippy cynicsm that so often passes for any ‘narrative voice’ that manages to evince more personality than a default prose.1 No, our narrator here is an educated, prickly, effusive fellow, who cannot write a sentence without using both italics and CAPITALS to emphasize his point, which he makes in long, involved, verbose profusions of loquacity that surely, in a less confident pen, would pall; but in a storyteller with as much to say as the necromantic historian (as our narrator terms himself, for he holds the power in his words to RAISE THE DEAD) serves to hold the reader’s attention in a sort of dizzied fascination; for whomst amongst ust can resist such a waterfall of vocabulary?
He holds strong opinions about literature, history, grammar. He flatters his reader in the main text, and picks fights in the footnotes.2 He is repeatedly fascinated by the modern technology of chapter breaks, and their magical capacity to jump over time and space: ‘We thumb our nose at those unities proclaimed by old Aristotle,’ he explains, ‘for any law of art held in disdain by the GENIUS OF SHAKESPEAR, compels no obedience of ours’ (pg. 35). He makes extreme use of footnotes to hold forth his views on the cruelty of Job’s God, or the social currents among books; to explain a literary allusion that he fears his reader might have missed (‘… the fire which burns hottest, is soonest exhausted, and now no body remembers Werter and his sorrows. – Hence our foot-note. – You understand, reader, we ornament our pages thus, for your sake, not our own’ (pg 223).) He serves notice that a particular element of the story is going to prove important, and then when, later, its importance emerges, to remind his reader that such an eventuality was indeed foreshadowed back on pg. 159.
But, you may be asking yourself, what is this story, which contains such foreshadowing, such allusive richness, such bold disregard for Aristotelian unity?
Well, we have our titular Mr Thomas Peach: educated, gentlemanly, and moderate in his tastes; master of a small household, consisting of himself, his ailing wife, a housekeeper, a stableboy, and a housemaid. In every respect he has built a life for himself that is above reproach, attracts no notice, and fits harmlessly into the retiring country life of rural 18th century Somersetshire. Such seclusion is vitally necessary for the comfort of his poor wife, who can bear no disturbance, no noise, no visitors, no conversation with any but himself. So very retiring and secluded is his poor wife, that many wonder whether she exists at all, or is there some deeper mystery at hand? (Yes, there is some deeper mystery at hand, but it’s not all that mysterious. You’ll figure it out, I’m sure, within a few chapters, even without the narrator’s rhetorical winks, nudges, and elbows to your ribs.)
But, for all that Mr Peach is our purported hero, the real thrust of the story is carried by an entirely separate set of characters, whose dramas he interacts with more as witness than as participant. Chief among them is Miss Clarissa Riddle, an orphan, who has been raised by a wealthy gentleman, ‘in imitation of the most exquisite pattern of feminine virtue which history, philosophy, or literature affords’ (pg 53). In this case, that pattern is the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (hence Miss Riddle’s name), and if you have ever read much 18th century fiction blathering on about female virtue, you’ll not be surprised to learn that Miss Riddle begins to resent her treatment. Violently.
Various eventualities eventuate: Accusations of madness; a rather unfortunate hysteria about marauding ‘gypsies’; secret societies and subterfuge; disinheritance; assassins; schemes and plots for the acquisition of money; unwanted marriages; murder; arson; surprisingly skillful blank verse—actually, this all sounds rather lively as I list these plot elements here. But they’re also all rather mundane, which, given the rhetorical nudges and hints and suggestions and eventual revelation that—I promise you, this is not a spoiler---our Mr Peach is a sorcerer, seems unsatisfying.
Indeed, the most striking part of the book, is that there is an entirely mundane explanation for just about every event that occurs. Our faithful narrator attempts to dissuade us from such a mindset. ‘Reader,’ he says, in response to a skepticism he attributes to us, ‘We beg you, be neither intemperate, nor hasty in your judgement. Remain patient—as we have urged you—And, observe’ (pg. 186). Yet, faithful and patient as I was, I could not help but observe that the only events that seem unassailably supernatural occur solely in the presence of Mr Peach. And, as a friend tells him, these may well be the imaginings of a grieving mind. The other occurances, as occult as they may seem in our narrator’s eyes, can be interpreted equally well as the rather hotheaded, passionate imaginings of some hotheaded, passionate people. It is perhaps not an accident that young Jem, the stable boy, in falling victim to the romantic charms of Goethe, illustrates how easy it is to import the fanciful imaginings of one’s fiction into the mundanity of one’s life.
I wonder whether that is, at its heart, what Jas Treadwell is doing with this book. Was it magic? Was it mundane? Does it matter? Our opinionated, prolix, and larger-than-life narrator repeatedly presents himself as a sorcerer of sorts—a necromantic historian, you may recall. Whatever magic Thomas Peach is capable of working, or imagining himself to be working, it is no less enchanting than the magic of skillful storytelling, however mundane the story may be.
— Highlights Nerd coefficient: 9/10 very high quality/standout in its category CLARA
COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas
lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental
linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by
vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about
figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative. References: Treadwell, Jas. The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach [Hodder and Stoughton, 2021].
1 I mean no offense to any breezy, sarcastic, quippy cynicism. I enjoy that too. But it is rather common, you must admit.↩
2 Regarding whether a river can flow ‘above’ a town: ‘My learned sir, if you have stood on the bank of some gentle stream, and observed the effortless and unhurried windings of its passage between yourself and those far-off hills, whence it descends; and have never felt the water’ss seduction, which seems irresistibly to lead you towards those sylvan heights!—then, sir, your soul is no better than a dry and shrivelled nut, and we leave you to the satisfactions of your quibbles and cavils. – You shall die, sir, and come to dust, as we shall; but we think our existence will have been worth the living. – Good day, sir’ (pgs 411-412).↩
Nerd coefficient: 9/10 very high quality/standout in its category
CLARA COHEN lives in Scotland in a creaky old building with pipes for gas lighting still lurking under her floorboards. She is an experimental linguist by profession, and calligrapher and Islamic geometric artist by vocation. During figure skating season she does blather on a bit about figure skating. She is on Mastodon at wandering.shop/@ergative.
Treadwell, Jas. The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach [Hodder and Stoughton, 2021].