I read The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H.G. Parry on the Kindle app on my ipad – my favourite bookshop was shut during lockdown – but I would like to have a “real” copy of it to dip into again more easily. I expected the book to be like the Jasper Fforde series which began with The Eyre Affair, in which a literary detective’s work is to put escaped characters back into their books. It is funny and fantastical by warping our known world, but The Unlikely Escape is different, superimposing or layering fiction on our “real” world. You laugh one moment and catch your breath the next.
The quotation above (reminiscent of ‘there’s a kangaroo loose in the top paddock’) comes from the first page when Rob’s brother, Charley, telephones him in the middle of the night from the university English department with a plea for help. Charley has summoned Uriah Heep out of David Copperfield and he does not want to be read back in. To remind you what Uriah is like, I found this audio of Dickens (really?) reading the part where David Copperfield meets Uriah for the first time.
In an interview with Kim Hill, the author said she chose the name Uriah Heep for the title as it is a name likely to be familiar to potential readers of the book. He is not the only character on the loose. There’s Heathcliff (with lethal weaponry), Sherlock Holmes and Dr Frankenstein (each called on for advice), Dorian Gray (expert internet hacker), Scheherazade (continually shelving in the bookshop) and various others.
I was surprised to find that H.G. Parry is a NZ author (but not surprised that she has a PhD in literature) and that the setting of her book is Wellington. To explain why I was surprised, the fictional characters who are on the loose are from Victorian to Regency English literature mainly. There are Dickens characters, and Austen and Wilde characters, as well as a fictional (i.e. made up by H.G. Parry) girl detective, from the twenties or thirties, I think. She’s a bit of a Jacinda Ardern type of character: forthright, moral and pragmatic, carefully negotiating her way around the tricky coalition of characters as she takes the lead. The particular setting is not that relevant really, as the book is about reading and how the characters we read about can inform our own lives. Perhaps, as it is the capital city, there is an implication about how we govern ourselves, settle scores and lead the way… The local references: Maui and Mahy are both internationally known, and this book is for an international market.
The book is a blast, particularly if you have studied literature and literary criticism, but just as much if you are aware of the vagaries of human nature and the different ways in which we can invent and re-invent ourselves, or if you have seen the various interpretations of the classics in tv series and film. As an example, there are five Darcys – each evidence of different ways in which readers have interpreted the character. One looks like Colin Firth. They share a house in a lane off Cuba Street. The lane is only accessible to other fictional characters (a bit like the train platform in the Harry Potter books), but it is under threat and this provides tension and action in the plot. One character is The Implied Reader who has an indistinct face. An Implied Author turns up at one point, and even Charles Dickens.
The plot is held together by a variety of contrasts and conflicts. Mainly, it is the story of two brothers. One is a 26 year old prodigy and academic who can summon fictional characters from books. The other (the first person narrator for much of the book) is a criminal defence lawyer who has almost always looked out for his younger brother. Now, he is called on to confront the family secret while hiding it from his partner, Lydia, and to take his support of his brother to a dangerous level. Uriah Heep becomes significant here as a foil to David Copperfield. I read a Guardian article which said these two characters “are a fork in the road”. Which brings up the question of how fair an author is in creating characters to make a point – Uriah Heep is perhaps justifiably aggrieved! A similar question arises as Charley and a rival summoner fight over which fictional world to impose on the real life city. So it is about academic rivalry as well. Or meeting one’s arch-nemesis. Is it imperative to impose one potentially limiting interpretation or to allow the many manifestations of fictional characters? The book argues for the latter.
The book is about how we read, whether or not we read, how much importance we give to the creative imagination and how powerful it can be in our lives. Margret Mahy’s The Lion in the Meadow is a recurring reference. I remember reading that there were two endings to Mahy’s story, and it is discussed in the book. The writer – and consequently the reader – suffers by repressing the imagination is the point made. And so in the end, as in Mahy’s book, the dragon remained “and nobody minded”. The Unlikely Escape finishes (slight spoiler alert – this book is about far more than the ending) with the once occasional reader, Rob, engrossed in Great Expectations at home by the fire with his brother Charley (reading The Princess Bride) and Sherlock Holmes (reading Agatha Christie) “And for a moment, the space between heartbeats, I felt I could glimpse the world Charley saw. A world of light and shadows, of fact, truth and story, each blurring into one another as sleep and wakefulness blur in the early morning. The moments of our lives unfolding as pages in a book. And everything connected, everyone joined, by an ever-shifting web of language, by words that caught us as prisms caught light and reflected us back at ourselves. ‘We changed again, and yet again,’ I read, ‘and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.'”
I’ve enjoyed the thinking this book has allowed me days after finishing it.