Book review: Jabberwocky, a novella by Theodore Singer
This book will genuinely repay you for the time you spend sourcing and reading it. It is a gothic quest story, which the author says is based on The Jabberwocky nonsense poem (Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll, 1871), but most reviewers have not been aware of the deep Mervyn Peake influence at work here.
In both this book and Peake’s gorgeous novel Titus Groan, a young lordling comes of age in an ancient castle that observes time-honoured nonsensical rituals, which are cycled through unquestioned like the positions on a clock face. The youth doesn’t accept his fate as a dusty caretaker and becomes the embodiment of change, sweeping it all behind him. In both this book and Peake’s third book of the same trilogy Titus Alone, the lordling goes beyond the boundaries of his territorial claim to find out what’s in the rest of his world, traversing through one unusual set piece after another in wanderlust. In both books, the venturer earns the opportunity to return after the end but keeps going.
The iron connection between Singer, Carroll and Peake is that Peake also illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass and what is more his distinctive illustrative style was influenced by John Tenniel, who also exquisitely illustrated the Jabberwocky poem. I’d defy you to find any artist with a closer illustrative style than that which exists between Tenniel’s Jabberwock and Peake’s later black line drawings.
Maeve Gilmore, Mervyn Peake’s widow, attempted and failed to capture and continue Peake’s world in Titus Awakes (2011) in a work that couldn’t reproduce the mojo and then had the quest petering out in a world of jalopies (from the Dark Ages to the early years of the automobile?) and the hero’s love for an artist (Maeve is an artist). It has been tried before, but that flopped and crashed, so I held out hope but reluctantly accepted that a seamless continuation could not be done.
What I’m saying is that Singer has revived on the page the mind-weepingly brilliant influence of two of the greatest writers of surreal fantasy in the English language and conscientiously continued the story of the Jabberwock without disappointing those dizzyingly high standards. You could be a Mervyn Peake completist or it’s possible you’ve never heard of his novels, but either way this book is a pearl and it will haunt you. If you have any literary sensibilities you will carry away fond memories from reading it, wherver you wander.