Premise: In the city of Lud-In-The-Mist, mention of the mystical fairy neighbours living beyond the Debatable Hills is something which is not acceptable in polite society. An even worse offence is eating fairy fruit, so when the Mayor’s son and daughter partake of this forbidden delicacy, a scandal ensues which leads Nathaniel Chanticleer (the dreamy, melancholy protagonist) on a journey that involves illusion and dreams, murder and general skulduggery.
The story inside the beautiful cover of the new edition for Hope Mirrlees’ “Lud-In-The-Mist” has two major things to live up to. First, there is the dichromatic web of interweaving vines, fruit and fairies that frame its enchanting cover design. Second, there is the quote from Neil Gaiman that this is the “single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century” which is quite a weight to put on the story’s shoulders before the reader has even opened up the first page.
We begin with a fair amount of scene setting where we learn about Lud-In-The-Mist’s geography (set between the twin rivers of the Dawl and the Dapple, it is the principal town of Dorimare; it has an ancient Guildhall that looks “like a rotten apricot”; there are “open squares where comic baroque statues of dead citizens [hold] levees attended by birds and lovers and insects and children”) and its history (previously, the city was ruled over by Duke Aubrey, “a hunchback with a face of angelic beauty”, but the merchants rebelled against his rule and the rule of Law was then established in which “neither Fairyland nor fairy things existed”) as well as being introduced to the story’s protagonist, Master Nathaniel Chanticleer. On first reading, this is all perhaps a smidgen confusing/tedious/rambling/inconsequential (delete as applicable) but it is necessary background to what is to come (so bear with it) and it nicely sets the tone for the twisty-turny adventures that follow.
The world is peopled with vivid characters whose eccentric names (Endymion Leer, Diggory Carp, Moonlove Honeysuckle) match their oddball personalities. They are almost all comical caricatures but this fits beautifully with the tenor of the story and their actions and reactions are often amusingly extreme. There is plenty of intrigue to sustain the narrative (Who is smuggling fairy fruit into the town? What do the collection of riddles and visions add up to? Why does fairy fruit seemingly cause people that eat it to go mad?) and the almost patchwork structure of the novel keeps everything churning along at quite a pace. The reader sympathises with the protagonists whilst also laughing at their, at times, bumbling hopelessness. We are drawn into their world even though it is off-kilter with our own. And I, at least, found that by the end, I wanted to keep turning the pages to know what happens next.
But what I really enjoyed about this book is that even though some of its framing devices (the lengthy introduction for instance) are rooted in the classical approach to story-telling, overall it seems so modern in its approach. Yes, the names of the principal characters are old-fashioned. Yes, the story is relatively twee in comparison to some latter day blockbusters. And yes, some of the language (“Busty Bridget!”) is perhaps a little fusty. But on the whole, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine this exact same novel being produced by a twenty-first century author. It has a dry sense of humour running throughout its veins. Its ending is inconclusive rather than the good-triumphs-over-evil trope of other early 20th century fantasy novels. And it has a structure that, despite its beginning, prioritises plot development over too much description or world-building. No wonder, then, that it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance. And Gaiman’s front cover quote doesn’t live up to its billing, not because the novel isn’t thoroughly enjoyable but because the book itself is no longer quite as forgotten or over-looked as the citation claims.
Who might enjoy this book: Fans of Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” should definitely give this a try. More recently, “Rotherweird” by Andrew Caldecott has a similarly off-beat feel. It also may appeal to anyone who enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”.