The finale of my Leon Garfield binge, a rare adult novel.
The House of Cards
This book has such an arresting beginning. It describes a baby born in a Polish Town that ‘begun with a W, ended in a Z and was pronounced like a sneeze’. We then hear the baby’s interior monologue, demanding food before going beyond the baby’s perspective to see that its mum is dead, its dad is dead, everyone in the town is dead. It’s a striking first page but it does not let up in the second, as an old man who’s face looks like ‘a curse with a beard’ came into town. The description of him is full-on Dickensian excess of the most enjoyable type and his indifference to the carnage around him is shown to be false as he talks to the corpses he steals from. He finds a baby and, unable to leave it crying, takes it with him, muttering to it as he goes. It’s a fantastic first chapter, one of the best I may have ever read.
The plot keeps cycling back to this moment and most of the main events in the plot start at this moment. We find ourselves twelve years later and in London. Mr Walker and his daughter, Perdita go to the weekly dinner held on a Friday by Mr Dolly, Jewish purveyor of middle-European delicacies. They are joined by his family, a young Polish Clerk and the housekeeper, before a beautiful but vaguely threatening woman, Katerina Kropotka, stumbles into the shop and the plot begins in earnest…
One of the brilliant things about the book are the characters. Perdita, the young girl grown from the baby in the ruins could have been a typical wilting flower, a weak figure of pity for all the other characters. She’s not only assertive but Garfield is brave enough to make her dislikable. The imperious selfishness of the baby’s inner monologue is not just a reflection a baby’s self-centred nature, it fully predicts how she will grow up. Often called ‘princess’, and not always for nice reasons, Mr Walker’s soft touch and her own prettiness has led to her being a sour, short-tempered girl who has other far more pleasant characters walking constant eggshells.
On the other hand, there’s Mr Dolly, who rivals Uncle Toby in niceness. Sometimes we are told a little too relentlessly about his goodness, there’s the faint whiff that his own likability is being forced onto the reader a little. He has a love of company and hosting, he sees the best in everyone and he enjoys being able to do people a good turn. There was an element in which his jury duty, the events of the book and the visit of his snobby cousin, Clarry Dolska, bring him down. A crueler author would have brought him down lower which may have added a bit more weight to the book.
The influence of Dickens is worn very clearly on this book’s sleeve, indeed the inside jacket claims that ‘Dickens would be proud to claim authorship’ of it. Garfield does do a good Dickens, he adopts the tactic of having clear, memorable characters that have their ‘things’ that they do. Descriptively, Garfield over-eggs his puddings in true Dickensian style but sometimes it comes off as a little false, where in Dickens it always feels like he’s full to bursting, Garfield is sometimes stretching to imitate that ebullience.
With other characters like the clerk, Mr Clarky and the policeman, Inspector Groom, it would seem that Bleak House is the main influence and it is here where The House of Cards shows itself to be a little flimsy. The book doesn’t have the same weight of event, of characters, of a labyrinthine plot that isn’t fully grasped by any one character till the end. It does have these things, but there are only three main plot points, the labyrinth doesn’t have enough twists and turns and there aren’t enough characters working their own wheels within wheels. Essentially, it’s not long enough, not big enough. Like Garfield sometimes stretches his descriptions to match Dickens’s ebullience, so the book stretches what is has rather than struggles to contain it.
That said, it’s still a wonderfully enjoyable novel to read with descriptions that made me smile and want to share them every few pages.