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OBSERVATORY MANSIONS by Edward Carey Kirkus Star


by Edward Carey

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-609-60680-8
Publisher: Crown

A macabre, colorful, morally complex first novel by a young British playwright.

Flirting with allegory, Carey sets his story in a big, decrepit house. Once a country manor called Tearsham Park, now a block of flats called Observatory Mansions, it sits on a traffic island surrounded by a noisy, rundown city. Lonely, grotesque characters inhabit the building; foremost is Francis Orme, the swollen-lipped, permanently white-gloved narrator who is secretly amassing a collection of other people’s beloved objects. When not playing with his collection in the basement, Francis earns his living by “practicing the art of stillness”: that is, he goes to a public square and for tips stands on a plinth, pretending to be a statue. Added to the stew are Francis’s father, who hasn’t spoken or risen from his armchair in years, and his mother, who won’t get out of bed. If all this doesn’t already sound sufficiently Beckett-like, there are also Peter Bugg, an ex-teacher obsessed with his lost discipline-doling ruler, lovingly named “Chiron” (Francis has purloined it, of course, for his collection); Claire Higg, an old spinster who watches TV and pines for the past; and a treacherous, backstabbing Porter. But all is changed by the arrival of Anna Tap, a new, kindhearted tenant with rapidly deteriorating eyeballs. Tom Wolvians be warned: this is not social realism—but it is a challenging, relevant piece of absurdism. Carey pushes situations to the verge of outrageousness but keeps them just plausible enough to seem familiar and eerie. Essentially, the story is about objects and the people who love them; it turns out, not surprisingly, that if they had loved other people, instead of objects, everything would have turned out a lot better. But Carey’s debut is full of small surprises, and in its high moments it is genuinely affecting.

A superb debut: demanding but still eminently accessible.