“Uriah Heep’s loose on the ninth floor…”

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.

Pastimes

Being retired felt sparkly and new; full of promise. But now that we’re all retired, more or less, the shine has gone off it. After three months, and with winter approaching, would it have seemed less of an adventure anyway?

I was excited about my daily craft book, was ready to get my paperwork in order – such as renewing my driver’s licence – and had begun to keep a journal to record the turmoil of retirement. All of these have pretty much lapsed.

I promised myself the delights of movies and tv shows I’d missed while working and have enjoyed some of these on Kanopy (some funny French movies) and TVNZ OnDemand (Girlfriends – very exciting and funny), but mostly I prefer to watch tv shows about gardening or house restoration on Living and QI on UKTV.

Radio has proved to be a good companion. Favourites include Jim Mora’s Sunday morning show and Jesse Mulligan’s Afternoons. The BBC Friday Comedy is a podcast I have followed for some time. It’s especially apt at the moment, recorded from the comedians’ homes and with no studio audience laughing at every joke. I like to listen to In Our Time or Woman’s Hour to occupy my mind while cleaning the bathroom or doing other mundane tasks.

I seem to have drifted into playing Patience. On my phone and ipad to start with, until I found the cool smooth crispness of real cards far more relaxing. No annoying infomercials for miracle bras, no hints about the next move, no promises of weird rewards, no disturbing messages giving you the percentage of people you have beaten.

The online Solitaire gave me the impression that the deal was manipulated to keep you playing, to tease you along, to advertise things it has worked out you need, and that it was being judgemental about your mental acuity.

I’m using a pack of cards which features Shakespeare’s flowers and each card has a quotation from the play in which the flower is mentioned. Charming. I can play the game while I look at the garden, the sunset, passersby, the tv, or the little spider with the stripy legs which lives somewhere around my desk.

Solitaire – “the last resource of the vacant mind” according to Myrtle Reed in A Weaver of Dreams (1911). She also concluded that it is not immoral to cheat when playing this game.

Mornings are spent with my back in the sun, reading the paper and doing the code cracker.

Mental acuity not great here: I mixed up the two given letters – and I never attempt the cryptic crossword.

My favourite indoor (sometimes outdoor in a sunny spot) pastime is reading. Occasionally, I’ll add a book to my ebook library, but prefer reading “real” books (and they don’t run out of battery). That said, I still become absorbed in the e versions.

On the cards (haha) are pursuits I would like to do more. When I heard my 13 year old nephew had taken up juggling during lockdown, I remembered I had some juggling balls and dug them out. They’re a bit the worse for wear, as my dog would be poised ready to grab them if they fell – which was often. The teethmarks and duct tape repair are evidence of his enthusiasm to join in. This time round, it’s possible I may get no further than the exercise on the first page of the instruction book.

The other pursuit is playing the piano. The piano has become a piece of furniture for family photos, boxes of cutlery too good to use and delicate tea cups. I have lost the muscle memory of many of the pieces I used to rattle off (I’m talking about music – the tea cups don’t rattle at all, surprisingly), but others I can stumble through. Fittingly, Beethoven’s Farewell to the Piano is manageable. He’s a bit of a show-off though, old Beethoven, not even easing up in a final piece. There are some big stretches for normal hands and the middle section has four flats and lots of accidentals. The inscription inside the book of music is: “Christmas 1971” signed by my music teacher, Mrs I M Lennon.

Best of all, perhaps, I enjoy my garden. The chooks keep me company out there, inspecting sweepings for tasty bugs.

Sometimes the light on plants is just right and I get a photo like this one to share, use as a screen saver and blog about. This chrysanthemum, which I won in a Friday raffle at work last year, was in a small pot and not looking very promising, so I popped it into the edge of the vegetable plot just a few weeks ago. It grew like crazy and had to be staked and tied to keep it from flopping over the little lime tree beside it.

This previously unassuming plant could be a metaphor for things to come when there is a time to step out of our confining bounds, flourish in fertile ground, grow and shine.

Reluctant reader

I can’t imagine being without books to read, but, at times, I am a reluctant reader. As I child, I would often spend ages choosing library books. They had to be just right. Even now, when I have books to read at home, I will “tiptoe” around them, choosing the one I will read first. If there’s a deadline for reading a book, such as for book group, there is less choice but often considerable reluctance when I know the content is not going to be easy. My experience of reading is that it is not always easy no matter how avid a reader you are – unless all you read is romantic fiction, perhaps. I can even understand that impulse, because life is hard enough without reading something which confirms what you knew subconsciously: that reality is hard to take. Sometimes what we need is a happy ending.

I have a technique for reading a book quickly. I divide the book into the number of pages and complete one section at a time. I keep up the pace of the reading. If it is becoming a chore, I may skim read some parts.

If a book becomes not just tedious but distasteful to me in some way, I will abandon it, having defied the unwritten law of completing something I’ve begun. I nearly got to the end of an Anthony Marra book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, when I saw it was not going to end well and I could do without knowing how. I have abandoned two books this year: The Orchestra of Minorities and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

A book I did persist with last week – albeit reluctantly – was American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I had already imagined many times what it must be like for the people in the “caravans” moving from Central America and Mexico to the United States at a time when Trump was building his wall and separating children from their parents. I also heard the news of the drug cartels killing people, such as a busload of trainee teachers. American Dirt relates the experiences of the people who have no choice but to put themselves in incredible danger as they try to escape violence, civil unrest and consequent poverty. The book was an agonising mix of being unputdownable and hard to pick up. In this time of heightened anxiety, it was a particular challenge. My heart raced and I found it hard to sleep after reading as I raged against the injustice in the world. Cummins researched her subject for four years. She cleverly appeals to her audience by making her main character a middle class woman who owns a bookshop in Acapulco – not the picture we have in our heads of a Mexican migrant or of a place (tourist hot-spot, cocktails on the beach) you would flee. The title is a clever play on words. The migrants need to reach a place of safety, but politicians, vigilantes – and often you and me – denigrate them or dismiss them. Remember our own dawn raids. I don’t regret reading this book.

So reading is not always easy, even in the apparent safety of my “bubble”, but it enriches my perception of humanity and the confronting world we have made and, sometimes, offers a way forward.

The end of Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.