Fantasy Reads – `Heap House’

This week I’m recommending Book One of `Iremonger’, a series set in a bizarre version of Victorian London. `Heap House’ by British-born author and artist, Edward Carey was published in 2013. It’s available in paperback or as an ebook but to get the full impact of Carey’s creepy monochrome illustrations you really need the hardback edition. Some Fantasy fans may have missed this long dark novel because it is allegedly for children `aged 9-12′. I would say that it is for people who have a Gothic cast of mind – and fairly strong nerves. Age has little to do with it. If you loved Mervyn Peake’s `Gormenghast Trilogy’ and go around muttering, `They don’t write ’em like that any more’, take heart. Carey does.

The story begins in 1875 and is centred on two young people born into very different lives – Clod Iremonger and Lucy Pennant. Walls separate London from the grim district of Filching and from the massive heaps of rubbish gathered from all over the capital city. The Iremonger family controls these stinking, rat-infested heaps and has made a great fortune from them. Numerous members of the Iremonger family live in a mansion known as `Heap House’ in the centre of the `heaplands’. One of the unusual things about this family is that each of them has been allocated a `birth object’ which they must always keep close to them.

The birth object of Clodius Iremonger (Clod) is a universal bathplug. Clod is sickly and small for his age but he is the grandson of the head of the family, and he has a talent for hearing objects talk – though all they usually say is a name. Lucy Pennant lives in an orphanage in Filching and faces a dismal future as a rubbish-sorter. Then it transpires that she has some Iremonger blood, and so is considered worthy to be a servant to the Iremonger family. Lucy is taken to Heap House, where she is given a birth object (a matchbox) and told that her role is to clean the fireplaces on the upper floors every night. Soon Lucy is finding it hard to remember her former life but she is determined to try.

Clod has his own problems. He’s being bullied by his cousin, Moorcus, and he’s about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a female cousin. He is also increasingly puzzled by the unhappy voices of the objects all around him. When an aunt falls sick after her birth object goes missing, Clod is the only one who can track it down. Iremongers aren’t supposed to notice servants and junior servants are forbidden to speak to members of the family, but Clod and Lucy break the rules. Together they investigate the disappearance of one of Lucy’s fellow servants and uncover the true purpose of the Iremongers’ birth objects. Danger is coming to Heap House. There is a monster in the bat-infested attics and a storm rising in the heaps and Lucy and Clod may face a terrible punishment for their friendship.

This is not `Downton Abbey’ with dust heaps.`Heap House’ is a Neo-Victorian Fantasy which isn’t nostalgic about the Victorian era. It takes every opportunity to illustrate the gulf between the privileged lives of the rich and the wretched lives of the poor in the most dramatic ways possible. At first, the Iremonger family just seem enjoyably eccentric but one of Lucy’s fellow maids warns her that Iremongers are wicked because they do nothing but take. The remainder of the story shows how true this is of nearly all the family. I was initially attracted to `Heap House’  because the cover illustration reminded me of my favourite novel by Charles Dickens – `Our Mutual Friend’ . One critic has noted that in `Our Mutual Friend’ Dickens used London’s privately owned dust-heaps `as symbols of the corrupting influences of wealth’. So does Carey. There is a lot of second-rate Dickens-influenced Fantasy about but I think that Carey shares three qualities with his great 19th century predecessor – an audacious use of language, a strong visual imagination and a gift for creating whole galleries of memorable grotesques.

Carey doesn’t imitate 19th century prose. Instead he’s invented a peculiar syntax for his characters to use, with distinctive speech-patterns for the Iremongers and for their servants. You may or may not like this. It certainly worked for me. When it comes to the narrative, there is nothing minimalist about Carey’s style. He piles up verbs, nouns and adjectives into heaps as big as the ones he’s describing. Carey will make you see, hear, feel and most of all smell the seething heaps and the creatures that live in them. Clod’s grandfather raves about the Iremongers’ passion for the things that other people discard, `The disgusting and malodorous, the shattered and the cracked, the rusted, the overwound, the missing parts, the stinking, the ugly, the poisonous, the useless and we loved them all…’

You often hear someone boast that they are a `people person’. I fear that I have something in common with the awful Iremongers because I’m more of a `thing person’. Things comfort and inspire me and I suspect that they do the same for Carey. It’s amazing how eloquent he can be about a simple bathplug. The way that Carey  breaks down the normal boundaries between objects and people is the most distinctive aspect of this novel. Victoria’s reign was the first age of mass consumerism. The Victorians had an awful lot of stuff – much of it unnecessary. Carey has fun with this in the absurd birth objects chosen for his Iremonger characters, such as a the lace doily of Clod’s fiancée, the cake-knife of his late Aunt Jocklun or the nose-tongs of his Uncle Idwid (if you like the idea of a birth object, Carey’s website will generate one for you). In this story, the evils of treating people like objects are shown in a startlingly literal way. People may become things and things may be become people. Things can come together in `Gatherings’ with a dangerous will of their own. A sofa may have a tragic past, a moustache-cup may be much more than it seems and as for the fraught relationship between Cousin Moorcus and his toastrack…

There was no room in my synopsis to mention all the notable characters, such as gentle Cousin Tummis who understandably prefers seagulls and rats to most of his relatives, blind Uncle Idwid, `the Governor Extraordinary of Birth Objects’, Clod’s cruel grandmother who has spent her whole life in one room because her birth object is a marble fireplace, and corset-wearing Mrs Piggott who is in the running for most sinister housekeeper ever. Melancholy Clod knows that he isn’t hero material but Lucy is a welcome addition to the list of spirited red-haired heroines in children’s literature. Lucy makes a strong first impression on Clod when she hits him on the head with a coal-scuttle but the outlook for their romance isn’t good. The perils they are plunged into may be outlandish but their sufferings are treated with emotional realism. Lucy has to struggle against drugs and brainwashing to retain any sense of her own identity, while Clod is in moral as well as physical danger. There always seems to be a very real possibility that his Iremonger heritage will corrupt him.

In my very first review on this blog, I wrote about the two main types of `comfort reading’ – books that transport you to a world you’d love to be part of and books that make you feel better about your own world. `Heap House’ is definitely in the second category. Reading this novel, and its even grimmer sequel `Foulsham’, has distracted me from the pain of a nasty attack of mouth ulcers.  `Heap House – works better than mouth-wash’ may not be the endorsement the publishers are looking for but I mean it as a sincere compliment. Until next time….


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Geraldine Pinch