Wednesday 30 November 2022

Review: The Yorkshire Witch by Summer Strevens


Hanged on the Knavesmire at York in 1809, Mary Bateman met her end at the same place as one of the Pendle witches in 1612. However, Mary, the ‘Yorkshire witch’ was not executed for witchcraft and, even if she had, the modern story of a poor, innocent woman railroaded by the justice system wouldn’t have applied to her. Mary Bateman was anything but innocent, a thief and con-artist who was hanged for murder, it’s very possible she killed at least three other people, making her a serial killer. 

She started from a young age with a career of opportunistic thievery, a habit that never really left her. As a result she was passed from job to job and moved from area to area and town to town. There was one time she bumped into an errand-boy from a butcher’s shop and pretended to be a cook angry for the lateness of the beef. She them bopped him on the head and took the beef home to cook. She married John Bateman, a conscientious cooper, who swore that he knew nothing of his wife’s criminal propensities. This seems unlikely, as in one case she forged a message from his mother, saying she was dying so that she could get John out of town in order to sell off all their furniture and pay back money she had stolen to someone else. Mary may have been brave in her criminal dealings but she wasn’t wise and frequently found herself having to give back items she’d been caught stealing, a practice that kept her out of official trouble.

One of her more successful swindles was to pose as a charitable collector, particularly after a great cotton mill fire. She’d collect money and useful items for the injured families and keep it all. She also set up shop as a ‘wise woman’, a keeper of botanical and magical lore who could heal the sick, end curses and find lost objects. This is where her nickname as a witch came from. It’s also became her principal hustle and the one that sealed her fate.

One interesting link between Bateman and one of my other interests is that she became a Southcottian and received (or had forged) one of Joanna Southcott’s famous seals. She used these connections to score free accommodation with a woman in York, who she proceeded to swindle in time-honoured fashion and when she went back to Leeds she had a new plan. She announced to the world (and Southcottians in particular) that she had discovered ‘The Prophet Hen of Leeds’, a fortune telling chicken whose eggs foretold the coming end-times. The first one read, ‘Crist is coming’, which may have included a crucial spelling error but was presumably not bad for a chicken. It caused a sensation, with people paying to see the miraculous hen and her marvellous eggs but the hoax was rumbled pretty soon when Mary was caught stuffing a pre-messaged egg into the chicken.

Away from the Southcottians, she also carried on her role as wise woman, or rather, as the intermediary between customers and a real wise woman (the non-existent, Miss Blythe). Her longer con involved her reading a fortune for someone, often a dark one, and suggesting the help of Miss Blythe to combat it. The usual way ‘Miss Blythe’ combat a dark fortune was to be sent 4 gold guineas, to seal them in pouches with special mystical ingredients and, via Mary, to deliver them to the person in need to sew into their bed. There was a warning though, not to open these packages for a set time period. For those poor people that did, they found the guineas had magically turned into lead weights or other useless items. In the more difficult circumstances, Miss Blythe would need other help. One family were told that the demonic forces had possessed Miss Blythe’s tea set and sugar, so they’d need to buy a replacement for her. Another bought Miss Blythe underwear, another a new dress. It seems painfully obvious what was happening, especially when Mary Bateman used that tea set or wore that dress, but maybe that’s part of the con, like spelling mistakes in a phishing email.

Bateman eventually went too far, feeding a couple, William and Rebecca Perigo, a special ‘magic’ pudding with arsenic in it, followed by honey laced with antimony. The wife died and, for a while, the husband kept going to her for advice. The husband tested the cake on a cat, which died and then went to the police. He arranged to meet up with Mary for more advice but had special constables in attendance. The arrested her and she pretended to throw up, claiming that William had given her a drink. It was a bottle with arsenic in that she had intended to give him. She was convicted of the murder of Rebecca Perigo and hanged. It’s very possible that she was not the first victim, there were the two Misses Kitchin and their mother who all died in quick succession after employing the services of Mary, who also claimed all their belongings when they died. They weren’t looked into and it’s unknown how many people were swindled or even killed by Mary Bateman.

Her post-mortem treatments was particularly brutal. Part of her skeleton was on display at a Leeds museum until 2015. Her pickled tongue ended on somebody’s mantlepiece and her tanned skin was used to back two books and also made into souvenirs distributed all over Yorkshire. Interestingly, her dissection also showed that she had a genetic anomaly that give her an extra rib.

The story of Mary Bateman is a fascinating one of crime, gullibility and the continuation of old, folk beliefs into the 19th century. The book The Yorkshire Witch by Summer Strevens is a fairly flawed affair. From the bibliography, it’s clear that the book is largely a reskinning of a contemporary biography with a few additions. The main addition is the last chapter, intended to be a modern psychological look at Mary but largely being a slightly waffly, trite discussion of Mary as a psychopath or sociopath. I don’t think this chapter was really helped by references to Cleopatra or Lucretia Borgia, she may have used poison but was not playing the high power games of those women. I think it probably didn’t need twin tower references either. The book is often padded out by digressions, as books based on limited sources have to be. I did enjoy the information about the York hangman, William ‘Mutton’ Curry but I didn’t need to be told that the Romans called York, Eboracum. I also thought Strevens was a little too liberal in her use of the exclamation mark, it gave the book a ghost tour flavour which is very York but not very authoritative. It’s still a fascinating story though and this book the easiest way to read it. 

Wednesday 23 November 2022

Review: The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth

 I’m a big William Harrison Ainsworth fan (even if I do find it difficult to get his surnames in the right order) and I was always going to read The Lancashire Witches at some point. Not just because it’s the only book of his still in print (a massive injustice) but also because a friend at university claimed he was a descendent of the lead witch herself, Old Mother Demdyke. I wonder what he’d say to her representation in the book and the ‘history’ of his family.

There’s often a tension in Ainsworth’s books. He’s clearly enamoured with the criminal, the marginalised and the different yet he’s working in a literary climate that demands those people have their ‘comeuppance’. This was a particular problem for him after a man committed a big, notorious murder and claimed it was partly due to the influence of books like Ainsworth’s. Written some time after, this book is constantly being pulled by the obvious appeal of the witches, their gleeful destruction of anything ‘civilised’ and the need to make a commercial piece of fiction. As such, the witches in this are real witches; cauldrons, broomsticks, cackling and all, with definitive links to the devil and malicious intent - they are the baddies of the book. However, the lawyers, god-fearing men and representatives of modernity are all fools and malicious themselves. In many ways it’s a novel where no-one can come out on top, as most of the main parties represent some form of intolerance and malevolence.

The book is split into four sections, each one lasting 48 hours. The first takes place before the witches, during the reign of Henry VIII. It’s the most overtly gothic of the sections, involving naughty monks and their secrets. The loved Abbot Paslew of Whalley Abbey is at the forefront of ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’, an armed attempt to fight the formation of the Church of England. He has some skeletons in his closet, more accurately in the The Monk-esque dungeon in the Abbey - except he doesn’t, the monk he’s cheated has made a pact with the devil, escaped and is now after revenge. He’s willing to make peace with the Abbot and secure his escape, if only the Abbot baptises his young daughter. Instead of baptising her, he curses her and the Demdyke clan of witches begins. It’s full of that great Ainsworth stuff, striking images and exciting action, lots of escapes, near misses, magic and heartbreak. There’s even a man who accidentally impales his friend on his halberd.

The second section is set about 100 years later, in the reign of King James I and takes place around the May Day celebrations. We meet the three Asshetons, Ralph, Richard and Nicholas. Richard is our perfect hero and the designated young lover of the piece but Ainsworth is clearly more taken by Nicholas, who is a typical country squire; rambunctious, overly fond of hunting and drinking but loyal and with a good heart. Richard falls in love with the May Queen, the beautiful and innocent Alizon Device. How she is both morally good and beautiful is anybody’s guess, she’s sister to the nasty Jennet, daughter of the dodgy Elizabeth and grand daughter of the evil witch, Mother Demdyke. Of course her parentage is far more complicated and she’s actually the daughter of Alice Nutter, who may be more beautiful but is as implicated in witchy goings on as the others. This is slower than part one, with the definite feeling that things are being set-up and implied - that is until the last chapters at a witches sabbath.

The third part is a journey into the heart of darkness. A lawyer called Potts has been called for to settle a boundary dispute between Alice Nutter and Roger Nowell but as they get closer to the area, it’s clear that things are not right. More and more stories of witchcraft and terror are unfolded and Potts decides to hunt the witches, spurred on by the kudos he hopes to get from King James. As they grow nearer Pendle Hill and Mother Demdyke’s stronghold in Malkin Tower, things get madder and madder. This is the point where Ainsworth lets rip with full Ainsworthyness, storms and witches and abductions and the Devil in disguise and doubles, potions, broomsticks, elaborate torture chambers, a snarling statue and rocks and rivers that change positions - the works. The witches all have to bring a convert to the Devil every year or their powers wane, there’s a power struggle and all the key players have little time to pay their dues. The way the familiars of the witches turn on them when their time’s up is genuinely ferocious and hurtful, especially considering how condescending they are when the witch is in good stead with her master. It ends in fire, blood and madness. This is the best section.

The fourth section is probably the weakest. Our chief supernatural villains are gone, there are a few remnants who cause mischief but the chief danger is now from the lawyer, especially because King James I is visiting. He may style himself ‘The British Solomon’ but he’s seems very fallible. Most of this section is taken up with descriptions of the King’s travelling court, his entertainments and descriptions of hunting all sorts of animals including otters and deer. Our tragic lovers end out their tragic love and everything is tied up. The most interesting element in this last part is Alice Nutter, who was a key witch but has since sought to redeem her soul. There’s tension whether this is even possible and her end has a lot of heart.

While I didn’t love this book as much as Rookwood, Jack Shepherd or even Auriol, it was still a corker. There were big chunks where Ainsworth got to do what he was best at, striking visuals and breakneck action but the second and third parts did slow down a little too much at times. Ainsworth writes as if the novel is a visual medium, he’d have done so well at film and when he’s doing those visual things, he’s great. Unfortunately, novels also need dialogue. At best, his dialogue is stiff, at worst he’s trying to write in a Lancashire accent. If the title was written in his phonetic dialogue, this book would be called T’ Lonkyshaire Watches. There were times when he’d just put in weird vowels. It wasn’t even consistent, sometimes ‘come’ would be ‘cym’ and sometimes ‘cum’. Luckily, not all the characters talk like this but enough do and there’s far too much of; “T’missmannert, car’ll boide naw questionnin, odd rottle him,” for my taste. However, there is a bit that describes King James as ejaculating and everyone ejaculating with him… that’s funny.

The other thing he does well is research, and its use. I was amazed that even character of Old Mother Mouldyfoot have origins in history, as does the progenitor of the curse, Abbot Paslew. He also knows when to change from his research, making Alizon Device a tug-of-war character between the good and bad sides, inventing a feud between Mothers Chattox and Demdyke. Some of these inventions have passed into (lazy) history, along with his claims about Dick Turpin and Black Bess in Rookwood. Another element that has been taken for historical truth is the story of King James knighting a piece of beef as Sir-Loin, a ‘fact’ my Dad once told me as true. (But then, he told me that monkeys rode the greyhounds at a dog race). The King James stuff isn’t as well digested on the whole and that section as a number of dull lists, featuring many famous names who don’t impact the story.

Another piece of research was the diary of Nicholas Assheton, a real person. I said at the beginning that there’s a real tension between making the witches evil and hating the real villains of history, the people that hanged them, resulting in very few of the characters being ones to root for.  Nick Assheton is though. He has his faults, he has a fear and hatred for the Devil and his witches but he also doesn’t trust the lawyers. He straddles the line between realistic faults (and indeed unrealistic, he dances with the ghost of a naughty nun) but with a just hatred for persecution. 

I don’t think any modern take on the Pendle Witches could ever represent the witches as actual evil beings with magic powers any more. We’re just too aware of how any witch trial was a terrible exercise of power against the powerless but in giving his witches actual powers, William Harrison Ainsworth does even things up a little, even if it’s just fictionally.  

Wednesday 16 November 2022

Review: The Monk by Matthew Lewis

This review includes some heavy spoilers, I wouldn't normally mention it but I think The Monk is a must-read, and it must be read unspoiled.

 Mathew Lewis’s The Monk was almost one of the first gothic novels I ever read. Back in the dark eons, when I was first getting interested in eighteenth century literature, I bought a compendium of three gothic novels. I read The Castle of Otranto and Vathek and decided that the significantly longer The Monk may best be left for another time. Almost twenty years, and a lot of gothic and eighteenth century novels later, I finally got around to reading it - and I’m glad I left it till now because I think no other gothic novel can top The Monk

Written when Lewis was approaching twenty, the imprint of a young man can be seen in the text’s desire to shock and appall but what immediately captured my attention was the book’s swagger. There’s no pretence that this is a translation of a lost manuscript, no distancing features of a tale told by another person and no preface explaining or apologising for the work. The closest The Monk comes to this is a poem where he reveals his youth, makes jokes about his book being forgotten and declares himself a man of dwarfish size and giant passions. 

The reader is then introduced to an actual scene and characters, there is no setting in historical context, no pre-amble, just the image of a church packed beyond capacity to hear a hot, young preacher. Here, the core lovers of the story meet, attended by their comic chaperones. Although I’ve learned to love the slightly stiff, creaky tone of a classic gothic novel, there’s no stiffness in this opening and (to my delight) actual paragraphing. It’s character focused and the jokes actually land. I laughed out loud at Leonella, beginning an explanation to the innocent Antonia about the difference between men and women,

      “Man has no breasts, and no hips and no…” before being cut off. 

When the two men, Don Lorenzo and his friend Don Christoval talk about the women they’ve just met, the smitten Don Lorenzo describes the timid Antonia as very clever. Don Christoval points out that she was practically mute, saying little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’, to which Don Lorenzo replies that she’s clever because she said ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in the right places. Even the narration has a comic verve. Don Lorenzo falls asleep in the church, waking up at a time when he realises he’s about to view a private ceremony that he shouldn’t. He makes a decision to leave;

   “I will go,” said Lorenzo. And Lorenzo stayed, where he was.” It’s that double use of his name and the comma after stayed that pace the sentence into something comic and true.

As well as this focus on character, the book is crammed full of (wonderfully preposterous) event. The actions and reversals of the second chapter could be a book by themselves and build beautifully on each other in a kinetic and chaotic way. From Ambrosio’s erotic feelings to his Madonna statue, his priggish sentence on the pregnant nun (which, unknown to him, kicks the whole subplot off), the Rosario reveal, the deadly centipede bite, the miraculous healing and the final ultimatum, “I must enjoy you, or die”.. it’s a rollercoaster.

Other improbable and wonderful parts of the book are a Robber’s Bride-esque escapade, a planned daring escape which leads to a man accidentally eloping with a randy ghost who wants to kiss him every night, the possible origins of the song ‘the worms crawl in’ and a Mother Superior being beaten by a crowd until she’s “no more that a mass of flesh, unsightly, shapeless and disgusting.” - Indeed, a lot of nuns die in the course of this book. I found myself starting each chapter with the feeling of ‘what’s in store next?’ never sure of the imaginative, ludicrous and often extreme events I was to come across.

That the book does this and still maintains a tight structure is amazing. There are some detours from the plots, and a number of subplots but they all add to the main stories, of the monk, Ambrosio and his slide into depravity, and of Raymond’s search for his love Agnes, lost in the secrecy of a nunnery. 

While Ambrosio’s story does include some pretty heinous actions, it was Agnes’s that went too far for me and actually made me feel creeped out and unpleasant. Locked in a cold oubliette, chained to a wall and pregnant, she gives birth to a baby who can’t survive the cold and poor nutrition. She then keeps hold of the baby as it rots, imagining the writhing of the maggots within the child as a heartbeat and looking at the decaying corpse as something beautiful in its mother’s eye. At this point the book goes beyond the campy, shock-for-shock’s-sake tone of the book and becomes something truly nasty and horrific. All I can say is, I’m glad she had a happy ending, and one that felt real and hard-won. (Though I was disturbed by the fact she had to win back her honour, having consented to sleeping with Raymond before marriage and getting pregnant, when it was his intemperance that lead to her torments).

Less happy endings were had for Don Lorenzo and Antonia, she died because she was too good for this world and he paired off with a random hot woman who appeared toward the end of the book - an ending that felt somewhat perfunctory. Also having an unhappy ending was Ambrosio the monk. Having been the golden child of the monastery, he quickly slid to the dark side, murdered his mother and raped his sister before being exposed and tortured. He then sold his soul to the devil and, unlike his initial tempter, Matilda, who has a huge glow-up after selling her soul, is tricked by The Trickster and is eaten alive by bugs and has his eyes torn out by eagles. 

The Monk is not an edifying book, it’s not a moral one but it is one that goes to extremes and, I think, fully succeeds in Horace Walpole’s project of uniting the vividness of the ancient romances with the more grounded psychology of a ‘modern’ novel. Matthew Lewis pulled off the trick and I think all the future gothic novels I read will seem lesser because of it.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Review: Vathek by William Beckford

 I’d first read Vathek the same time I read The Castle of Otranto, over ten years ago. I’d remembered Otranto as rather underwhelming but had found myself pleasantly surprised on re-read, being far more entertaining than I’d thought. I remembered Vathek as very entertaining in itself, so I was looking forward to it. Not only did it not quite live up to my memory but most of what I remembered about the book was wrong. A key part of it, in my memory, was a romance between Vathek and the feminine-boy Goulchenrouz. I’d remembered his bulky name but completely mis-remembered /invented his part in the story.

I had remembered that Vathek was a King with unrivalled curiosity, that he had an evil eye that could kill but did not do it very often and that he became obsessed with a stranger who’d brought the most unusual trinkets. I’d forgotten that those trinkets included self-walking shoes. I’d also forgotten that his response to the stranger escaping from his prison was to kick those guarding them from morning till sunset, which he later estimates at 40,000 kicks.

On a similar kicking theme, I’d forgotten that when the stranger returns a second time he rolls himself into a ball and is kicked by the entire city, essentially playing a game of schoolboy football, where kicking the ball is more important than the direction it’s kicked in. There’s the great detail of Vathek’s viziers laying down to get between him and the ball-stranger, and Vathek simply jumping over them. This book is full of fun details, like the beard-burning of inept linguistics professors and the half beard-burning of the one that was half-right.

Following these weird events, there’s a child-sacrifice party and a tower bonfire, which eventually leads to the information that the stranger is a demon called Giaour, and the entrance to Hell is just over 100 miles away. Vathek decides going to Hell is a great idea and decides to bring only the essentials; several enormous banquets, cages full of wives and all the chintz in the city. The caravan is stalked by wild animals, he lights torches to scare them off and creates an immense forest fire causing them to scatter and later to be rescued by a colony of religious dwarves who lead Vathek to the main subplot.

This is where Goulchenrouz comes in. Vathek wants to add Nouronihar to his wife collection, even make her his primary wife but she’s engaged to her cousin (ick) Goulchenrouz, a young man more feminine than her. In my recollection of the book, Vathek pivoted to fancying Goulchenrouz and seduced the young lad to his doom. What actually happened was Nouronihar’s father faking her and Goulchenrouz’s death, but Nouronihar finding her way out of the fake limbo, where she had to eat plain rice, and going off with Vathek. She was really seduced by the notion of owning the ‘carbuncle of Giamshid’ for some reason. That Nouronihar really likes her a carbuncle. Goulchenrouz found himself taken up to live in the clouds forever as the arial equivalent of a water baby.

The gang find Hell and go in, where it turns out that things aren’t very nice. They have a limited time to mooch about the halls and see wonders but in a few hours their hearts will be set ablaze and they’ll have to walk about in agony with their hand cupped over it, never to have time to enjoy anything again. I’m not sure why eternal agony seemed to surprise our characters so much after they’d literally walked the path of damnation but it did. I also found the Jesus-like burning heart to be an unusual punishment, 

The best character in the novel is Carathis. She’s Vathek’s mother and not wholly unacquainted with the dark arts. She creates a potion full of ram’s horns and old mummies to tempt Giaour and, as suspected, he delighted in “the savour of the mummies”. The lesson being, if cooking for demons, mummies are the best spice. She decides not to join Vathek on his quest as, “my taste for dead bodies, and everything like mummy is decided”, so she’ll stay home and play with them. When she gets word that Vathek has become waylaid by Nouronihar, she hunts him down by chatting with her friends in the graveyard while her servants flirt with ghosts. Later she uses magic to talk to a shoal of fish. In the end, she is summoned to Hell but unlike the others, waiting for their punishment, she decides to actually sit on those Hell thrones and has a good time catching up with all the demons she’s met before. She’s powerful, she knows what she likes and being sent to Hell is only going to make her day a little more interesting.

Beckford was 21 when he wrote this and it shows. While the novel I wrote as a 21 year old is not as violent, it is a car crash of all the cool ideas I’d had up to that point. There’s a similar quality to this book of him throwing everything in that he thought would be memorable but my poor memory of it shows that maybe it wasn’t. If The Old English Baron was an attempt to write gothic by minimising the supernatural, Vathek almost completely dispenses with the realistic. It is a wild time but its impact relies mostly on shock and there’s not much thought to be had about it afterwards. Like Beckford’s Tower, it doesn’t quite hold up.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

The Liar's Dictionary by Eley Williams at the Dr Johnson's Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle returned for a new year by reading something a little different. Instead of an 18th century focus, the book in question was a novel that dealt with dictionaries. Eley Williams, author of The Liar’s Dictionary joined the group for a free-wheeling evening that took in dictionaries, local names for moss, character names and the inspiration for Ratty in The Wind in the Willows.

The novel follows two strands. The first is of Mallory, intern and lone employee at Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary, a project from the turn of the twentieth century which was never completed. At the turn of the twenty-first century, what was completed of the dictionary is being put online but there is a problem, mountweasels. These are incorrect entries, either put in out of ignorance, mistake or a trick against copyright theft. It turns out Swansby’s is full of them. The other strand follows Winceworth, an employee of the dictionary in its heyday and the originator of these pernicious non-words.

Naturally, this being a novel about dictionaries and a discussion held at Dr Johnson’s House, there was a lot of discussion about dictionaries and the legitimacy of words in general. What gave Johnson the authority to record language for posterity? To include such old words as ‘kicksy-wicksy’ or obscure ones as ‘retromingency’? Although not invented by Johnson, an archaic form of endearment or a term for animals urinating backwards are arguably less useful than Winceworth’s own ‘unbedoggerel - to elucidate from nonsense’, or ‘auroflorous - to escape at night, usually with a renewed sense of purpose’. Williams talked about how she came up with these mountweasel words, either by starting with a pleasing set of sounds and assigning a meaning, or thinking of something that is lacking a word to describe it. 

One of the plot elements in The Liar’s Dictionary is a sequence of bomb threats sent to the twenty-first century Swansby’s dictionary in protest at their change of the definition of ‘marriage’ to be between two people, without specifying gender. On a trip last month to Miriam Webster’s in the USA, there was a bomb threat over their definition of the word ‘woman’. The definition of words still (or more increasingly) has the power to excite strong feelings in people and as much as it purports to be, defining a word is not a neutral act.

For Noah Webster, writing a dictionary was a way of fencing off an American language as separate from its English forbear. For the brother’s Grimm, it was an act of nation building, creating a German people from their shared language (as well as their shared body of folktales). For Johnson it was ‘dull work’. For the characters in the book, the dictionary was a way of boxing the world in and creating control, only for life to burst out in other ways.

The character’s names were a particular class of word that had meaning in the book. There was the character of Glossop, so named because Wittgenstein lived there and she had to get a reference to his philosophy of language games. Winceworth, a character who winces when he connects with others and discovers his own self-worth in the book, even if that takes the form of the smallest rebellion possible. Then there’s Mallory, people in the book guess at her name’s meaning, whether there’s an exploration connection, or a King Arthur one - it actually comes from computer programming where Mallory is a nickname for mal-ware in software test run.

Some character’s names purposefully didn’t fit them. Sophia Slivkovna is a character whose surname is causing problems for the upcoming Russian translation as it is no Russian name - but then Sophia may be no Russian. Nor is she a source of sophia - or knowledge, but a human mountweasel in the text, a form of disruption.

The word of the night was ‘idiosyncratic’. Some read the book in an idiosyncratic fashion, reading one of the strands, skipping the chapters with the other and then going back. There was the idiosyncratic nature of Winceworth’s mountweasels. The idiosyncratic ways that people read a dictionary, that they write one. A dictionary is a book that aspires to authority, to be beyond one person’s own understanding of words but they frequently are not, none more so than Johnson’s itself. This novel is also idiosyncratic, a link-making, word-creating work of play and it was fun to play with.

(As for my own idiosyncratic reading experience...) 

Generally, I feel it’s a bit of an insult to praise a novel for the quality of the sentences. A novel is a larger beast, working through chapters, maybe paragraphs at its shortest and to praise it for its sentences if to suggest it is fussy and overworked. A novel may have one or two zingers in it but to notice one at a sentence length just seems like praising a building for the shapeliness of its bricks. But this book does have great sentences. Whether it’s the preface that declares a good dictionary needs ‘a typeface with cheekbones’ and then starts with a character in a ‘stationa/ery cupboard’ eating a boiled egg (though they sometimes spend lunch ‘chase-licking individual grains of rice’ around a tupperware container’ while the ‘afternoon tugged around the clock’. In the end I had to tell myself to stop writing down choice phrases as there were too many.

As playful as the book was, it didn’t come across as pretentious. Partly because all the links and connections seemed to come from a place of joy, rather than showing off and partly because the book included little details, like picking up a dog poo with a choc-ice wrapper. It’s also (probably) the only novel I’ve read with a Crinkley Bottom/ Mr Blobby reference.