Eric Boss reviews THE UNLIKELY ESCAPE OF URIAH HEEP
Booksellers love books about books. No surprise there, but they are not the only ones. Readers also love them and in this one those groups and others will find treasure most fine. Literary criticism is a sea most of us would prefer not to ply, given its arcane and sometimes unfathomable excursions into detailed and often tedious analysis of every word, phrase, concept and character construction. The joining of the two, then, is an unusual place for the leisure reader, or even the serious reader to find themselves truly enjoying the experience. Here we have writers, readers, characters, academics and the astounded friends and families of those tribes bound together in a uniquely imagined universe of fantasy.
I first came across the notion of reading a character into or out of a book in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. That idea is expanded upon and pushed to the limit by Dr. Charles Sutherland, a professor of English Literature at Prince Albert University (a fictional institution; there is a Victoria University – get it?) in Wellington, New Zealand. In the early hours of an otherwise unusual day he calls his older brother, Rob, to ask for help catching and returning Uriah Heep, whom he has read out of David Copperfield by mistake. So begins an exciting and engaging tale of literary celebrities of the real and created varieties. Treachery, mayhem, heroism, purpose and style follow in a maelstrom of activity that I cannot adequately describe, so I won’t try. Enough to say that I doubt you’ve thought of any of the stuff the author has cooked up to the reader’s great delight.
There are some short passages delving briefly into real literary criticism with the attendant lingo, most of which we mere mortals will not understand, but they do not diminish the pace of the action or retard the comprehension of the plot. They lend verisimilitude and flavor to the narrative and add a sense of reality to what is otherwise a truly fantastic story. This is a carefully written and craftily skilled work that provides a large helping of reading pleasure.
Think of The Artful Dodger, Sherlock Holmes, The Jabberwock, The White Queen of Narnia, Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff and the plucky heroine of a children’s mystery series fighting evil side by side with a distracted professor of English and a somewhat feckless lawyer, and you have some idea of what goes on here. Joy in generous measure.
Shelf Talker: Characters are drawn out of and exiled back into books by an English professor with supernatural powers as one of fiction’s most sinister literary villains strives to superimpose a dark world that suits his purposes on that of our reality. Victorian landscape, fell creatures and a plucky representative of children’s fiction season this epic battle for the survival of both universes.