Having seen countless references to the Gormenghast Trilogy on the backs of other books by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks and China Mieville I thought it was about time I read Mervyn Peake’s trilogy.
Titus Groan is the first volume of the trilogy and covers the bizarre events that occur in Gormenghast castle, a decaying gothic collection of buildings that has grown seemingly organically over hundreds of years from the rock of a mountain, during a period of time from the birth of the titular heir to the castle up until a particularly peculiar and nonsensical rain-soaked ceremony before his second birthday. Please appreciate that I am trying hard to avoid any spoilers here – so I hope you can see I am being suitably vague.
The book is however far less about the baby and more about all the other twisted, macabre, Dickensian named and frankly barmy characters who inhabit the castle. There is Rottcodd who doesn’t leave his dusty room of carvings and spends most of his time asleep in a hammock, the Earl who is more in love with the books in the ancient library than his wife who dotes on a menagerie of birds and cats (who curiously never come into conflict with one another) more than on her son Titus. Titus is left to be looked after by Nanny Slagg a nervous dot of a woman and surely the source for Elisabeth’s nanny in Blackadder II. There is a resident physician called Dr Prunesquallor who lives on the castle grounds with his spinster sister. The giant cook Swelter (whose description by Peake conjured up mental images of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters) is at murderous odds with Flay with his cracking knee joints and obsession with ceremony and tradition. There are twin Aunts both suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke and their mad isolation away from their brother the Earl, the Earl’s daughter Fuchsia who actually wants to be left alone and the woman Keda with her own story from outside of the castle walls plus other characters as well.
In fact we most closely follow the arc of an ambitious and unlikeable young man who has escaped from under Swelter’s shadow in the steaming kitchens. His name is Steerpike and he manages to climb in more ways than one up through the pecking order of the castle’s hierarchy by various plots and sycophancies.
The other character which remains somewhat of an enigma is the castle itself which is a ramshackle collection of archaic buildings in which Peake weaves a wonderfully atmospheric web. Peake’s command over and playful use of the English language is extremely satisfying. His descriptions of light, reflections and shadow are brilliant and his ensemble of characters is wonderful. Most books have one or two fully fleshed out characters with distinct voices and mannerisms – this book literally has a castle full. Peake’s status a poet is clearly evident in his prose which features metaphors of exquisite construction, sentences that sing and dialogue full of humour.
The story of Steerpike’s progress does leave many loose ends dangling and if Titus Groan was a novel without sequels I would have to criticise it for its rather unsatisfying and somewhat confusing conclusion. However it is book one and I am anticipating that book two will contain many a revelation and I hope it will continue this richly rewarding reading experience. I urge any fan of fantasy to read this book and I am so glad to have finally done so myself.