THE ALTERATION by Kingsley Amis


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The English Reformation never was. Got that? Now: Ten-year-old Hubert Anvil is boy soprano of the year--1976-- and Pope John XXIV (a Yorkshireman) would like that pre-pubescent voice to glorify the Church on a permanent basis. Hence the title, and the castrato-elect's desperate crusade to understand--via peeping-tomming and intense inquiries--what he's in danger of missing out on. As it happens, Hubert would rather compose than sing anyway, so he takes Dickensian flight and refuge in the bosom of a sweetness-and-light household. Escape to sea, an ah!-fate! deus ex machina denouement, and an ironic, downbeat epilogue. The Amis light touch and high spirits are sadly missing. There's no shortage of flat, what-if-history-were-different gags: Arnoldstown (for Benedict) instead of Washington, Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre, "tachygram" instead of telegram, scientific treatises treated as pornography. But the only real laugh comes when the Pope begins teatime by lifting the teapot and asking, "Shall we be Mother?" The novelty plot and narrative efficiency are enough to snare an audience, but shame on the usually entertaining Amis for giving us gimmicky, half-parodied, sentimental melodrama. Too precious to take seriously (however genuine the anti-clerical anger) and too leaden to embrace.
Pub Date: Jan. 20th, 1976
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1976


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