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 An ingenious, sympathetic (though somewhat claustrophobic) fictional exploration of the odd life and peculiar obsessions of William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, the fifth Duke of Portland (180079), and one of the great Victorian eccentrics. Jackson's debut novel takes some of what is known of the Duke's life, in addition to folktales about him that still circulate in his native Nottinghamshire, and adds a considerable amount of invention to create the portrait of a bright, hopelessly baffled figure, struggling to carry out the hereditary obligations of his office while sinking deeper and deeper into a hypochondriacal frenzy. The exceedingly wealthy Duke is best remembered for having created a series of vast tunnels--each wide enough to allow a coach-and-four to pass through--leading to his home, to allow him to come and go without being watched by the neighbors. Jackson adds to that actual occurrence an obsession with health--and a desperate fear of the impermanence of life--that drive the Duke to ever wilder attempts to regain well-being. He besieges a number of doctors, convinced that he is exhibiting hideous symptoms of illness and decay, and visits a variety of healers, including spiritualist sisters and a ``bone manipulator.'' All of this is narrated in the first person, as the Duke sets down in his journal a running commentary on the state of his body and on his confusing encounters with the world. There's much here that is sharp and winning: Jackson's re-creation of the Duke's voice- -querulous and exact--and of the voices of his many baffled, indulgent retainers. His portrait, through the Duke's eyes, of an age poised between credulity and science is shrewd and fascinating. But a little of the Duke goes a long way. Jackson's excavation of a damaged, self-absorbed figure finally becomes somewhat wearying. Still, there's enough vigor and imagination here to suggest the emergence of a lively new talent.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-688-15449-2
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1997