A Book You May Have Missed...
Observatory Mansions , Edward Carey
(Crown Books, 2001)
Review by Jeff VanderMeer
Observatory Mansions, published in 2001, is simply the best Gothic fantasy of the new century. This first novel by Edward Carey, a London playwright and artist, is stunning in its use of a dark fantasy atmosphere even though, as in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books, nothing fantastical happens. Francis Orme narrates this story of an ancestral mansion converted to apartments, of a place in the country become a virtual island, surrounded by urban traffic. The novel opens with the arrival of the first new renter in several years, the irrepressible Anna Tap. Francis sees her arrival as a catastrophe:
I often thought of our home as a solid, hairless, and ancient man. This man, sitting with his flabby arms hugging his round knees, stares hopelessly down at the traffic, at the smaller, modern, neighboring buildings, at the countless people rushing by. He sighs heavily; he's not sure why he's still here. The old man is not well, the old man is dying. He suffers from countless ailments, his skin is discolored, his internal organs are haemorrhaging... This was our home and we were even tolerably happy living there, until a new resident came.
Although hounded by the other tenants, who cannot understand her optimism, her love for others, Tap refuses to buy into their silence, repressed memories, and desperation. The tenants plot to harass her into leaving Observatory Mansions. However, with each new attempt, Tap wins over more of the residents, gamely ignoring every cruelty leveled at her. Only Francis refuses to accept her.
The novel provides ample pleasures in the battle between Tap and the other residents. This plot alone could have sustained and breathed life into Observatory Mansions. Carey carefully and brilliantly creates each of his characters, using his descriptions, through Francis, to create depth and eccentricity:
Stupid Bugg, dense old schoolteacher, dense old tutor. A head for books, a head made of books, a head of sheets of paper, the typefaces all tiny. Skin of paper, the paper of his skin burnt with words, words that glistened under sweat. Who has read the book of Peter Bugg? No one. Who wants to read the book of Peter Bugg? No one. It remains on the library shelf. It was placed there shortly after publication, an edition of one, and no one has ever asked for it.
But Carey, at every step, raises the stakes; he isn't interested in just portraying eccentric characters in an eccentric setting. He wants nothing less than Mastery of technique, of characterization, of setting, of memory, of resonance.
As Francis becomes the last person trying to drive Tap away, Carey reveals the history of the Orme family and the mansion. We learn that the Ormes owned the mansion. We learn about Francis' odd job, his museum of objects stolen from family, neighbors, and strangers, and many other things that, by novel's end, have great emotional weight.
Francis as narrator is compelling, cruel, oddly affecting, and, through Carey's sure touch, absolutely riveting. His loathing directed as much toward himself as toward the world or other people, he is simultaneously stylized and three-dimensional. I've never read any book with a character that so simultaneously evoked sympathy and disgust in the reader. I've never read a book with a narrator like Francis, period.
As Observatory Mansions reaches its conclusion, the devastating events it relates, the beauty of the prose, and the clear yet gothic quality of the narration gave me the chills. The odd, strange attachment we form to objects has never been proven so poignantly as in the list that ends the novel. The odd, strange attachment we form with people has rarely been laid out in so stark a fashion. I must confess that the novel got under my skin and moved me deeply.
In all ways that count, Observatory Mansions is dark fantasy. The odd goings-on of the porter, the tale of the tenant known as Dog Woman, Francis' collection hidden in a secret tunnel under a tombstone all create a grotesque and strangely beautiful painting. The novel reads as if Edward Gorey had written a novel in collaboration with the aforementioned Mervyn Peake, but Carey is both more ruthless and more compassionate than either Gorey or Peake. In all ways that count, Observatory Mansions is a major work. I consider it the best fiction yet published in the 21st century, and look forward to Carey's second novel, also fantastical, scheduled for publication in 2003.