Book Review: The Swallowed Man

swallowed man

“There is no neat plot to a man’s life. There are endless days, which are like as twins. Mornings and afternoons and nights, one after the other, no true escape but only the calendar to show that the day is gone, and here comes another to take its place. The changes, when they come, are mostly gradual.”

The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey, is undoubtedly a quirky work of fiction but one so cleverly written the reader will be happy to stay on board until the journey’s end. Narrated by Geppetto, the carpenter who made a wooden puppet that came to life and was named Pinocchio, the tale opens as Geppetto is coming to terms with being swallowed by a giant sea creature. Within the belly of this beast he remains alive thanks to supplies he finds on a Danish schooner that is slowly rotting there. He is writing his story in the hope it will be found one day and passed on to Pinocchio, that his creation may know he was loved despite how Geppetto treated him.

The first few chapters explain the practicalities of life inside the sea creature and how Geppetto ended up there.

While living in his hometown of Collodi, he made his wooden boy puppet both as company and with the hope it could earn him some money. Geppetto’s family once owned a successful ceramics factory. Through the telling of his life story we learn why he came to live in penury. The well known story of Pinocchio is a minor element but one that profoundly affects his creator.

Like his father before him, Geppetto was a somewhat cruel parent. He demands that his wooden child be compliant, by force if necessary. When Pinocchio runs away, Geppetto sets out to track him down, feeling guilt but also still hopeful that this is the key to an improved financial future. Those he encounters on his search believe him unstable – who would believe a wooden puppet can be alive?

From within the belly of the beast Geppetto writes of both his own life and the invented lives he creates for those whose pictures he finds in the ship. There are stories within stories, imaginative leaps that help pass the time and tamp down his growing unease. There are desperate attempts at escape. Small friendships are made. Geppetto mulls his memories, often with regret.

As months pass, the damp darkness and solitude drive Geppetto closer to derangement. He fends this off with further creations, seeking company in paintings, crafting sculptures from what scarce materials are available. He thinks constantly of what was lost when Pinocchio left.

Interspersed with the writing are many illustrations – photographs and drawings that add much to key elements of the tale. These were originally part of an exhibition commissioned by the Collodi Foundation for the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy in 2018. The illustrated book of Geppetto’s journal was published by La Nave di Teseo in Italy and became The Swallowed Man in English.

The unusual setting somehow works providing a compelling story of artistic endeavour as a palliative to loneliness. Geppetto may have been unsuccessful in many aspects of life – career, love, parenthood – and certainly he harbours regrets, yet even in the direst circumstances he clings to hope and survival.

A somewhat whimsical yet percipient tale of love’s complexities woven through an audacious and witty premise. Another fine read from an author whose body of work garners, from this reader, growing admiration.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books.


Book Review: B, A Year in Plagues and Pencils

B plagues

“I’m not looking for perfection here: I’m marking time”

On 19 March 2020, Edward Carey drew a pencil sketch of ‘A determined young man’. He posted it on Twitter with the comment, ‘I’m going to do a drawing a day until all this nonsense is over.’ He continued his daily drawings for five hundred days. Sadly, this nonsense is not yet over.

Carey describes the book thus:

“a journal in pencil of a year in misery and hope. Small marks. Daily scratchings, as evidence of life”

As well as including reproductions of the pencil sketches he drew each day during the first year of plague lockdown, there are short musings on the life the author was leading and how hemmed in he felt. Local and world news was available in abundance across the internet, but day to day he was required to stay at home, in and around his Texas bungalow with his wife and two children. For a family used to regular travel, this required an adjustment in perspective.

“I’m forgetting faces. I miss people, of course, terribly. Yet every day out of the window there are still people there. I see these individuals walking up and down the street. Can’t see their faces. Only their eyes and the top of their heads. Like a new breed of human, with no nose, no mouth, no chin.”

plague doctor ec

The author writes of the pleasure he has long derived from drawing, and how this project gave him something to focus on, although at times he considered quitting. The short prose sections are imbued with a melancholy he tries hard to suppress. They reflect how so many have felt.

“Sometimes these drawings feel like shed skin. They were former times, stacks of yesterdays”

The subjects chosen vary. They include: people representing events from the year, well known characters from reality and fiction, family, nature. Some were requested by others. Carey chose to do many himself.

into a book ec

“Hours a day I drew. Just with a pencil mostly. Drawing being an alternative to words, another way of communicating”

The art included is wonderful to peruse. The style is distinctive – a hint of gothic but also playful. The writing pulls them together to form a keepsake of a time we will look back on with sorrow but also wonder – what we learned and how we and others felt. Although the reflections are personal, they resonate.

The forward, written by Max Porter, reminds us of the appreciation Twitter users expressed when the project was ongoing.

“It’s beautiful work. It makes the great mean machine of Twitter a momentarily nicer place. You land upon the carefully drawn image as you scroll through aggressions, bullish assertions, the snide, the sarcastic or the statistically devastating.”

We have here a book that offers readers these fine artistic creations alongside succinct reminders of previously unimaginable events now lived through. A poignant yet beautifully produced chronicle of a year those who have survived will never forget.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic.

Gig Review: Edward Carey in Bath

On Thursday of last week I travelled to Bath to hear author Edward Carey talk about his latest novel, Little. This fabulous tale tells the fictionalised life story of a young woman named Anne Marie Grosholtz who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Edward had travelled all the way from America to promote the UK release and, having read the book, I had been happy to discover that one of the stops on his tour was the always delightful Mr B’s Emporium, less than an hour’s drive from my home.

As I sipped on a well chilled glass of wine prior to the event I got into conversation with another attendee. She told me that she went to university with Edward, who she had known as John, and that she was expecting a number of their former student friends to join her for the evening. She hadn’t yet read the book which I was happy to recommend.

We were soon ushered upstairs to the bibliotherapy room, taking our seats in the intimate space to listen to Edward in discussion with a member of staff on how he came to write this particular story.

Edward told us that the book took around fifteen years to create. A number of years ago he worked in Madame Tussauds in London where his job was to ensure that the noble wax figures were protected from a disrespectful public. He was intrigued by the original models on display, especially that of an elderly Marie Tussaud which she had made.

Research for the novel included temporarily living in Paris and getting a feel for the city and its history. There were so many famous characters to learn about whose wax models Marie created. Eventually Edward stepped back from the research to write the story. He realised that this was a tale of survival, that Marie was a witness to an incredible period of history – the years leading up to and including the French Revolution.

Although a rather dry memoir was written in Victorian times, by three different men, Marie’s life remained largely undocumented. What she left behind were her wax models of the famous. Edward aimed to present a story that joined them together. There were many to incorporate. Despite being an orphan and penniless servant, Marie became part of these people’s history. She met them in life or death. She enabled those who came after to attain a feel for them as individuals.

There were details that Edward wished to share, such as that King Louis never wished to be king and was fairly hopeless in the role making many poor decisions. Louis would have preferred to be a locksmith – the Palace of Versaille still contains locks he fitted. It is known that he would go out onto the roof of the palace and shoot at the feral cats his father had introduced – in the story Marie meets him here, unaware of who he is. Whether or not Marie lived in a cupboard in the palace cannot be known but Edward was writing fiction so felt free to embellish.

Edward spoke of Marie’s encounters with Benjamin Franklin (through his hair) and Voltaire (after he died). He wished to find a new way to tell these people’s stories. To create a wax model a cast needed to be created, a process that required the subject to sit silent and still. Edward liked to imagine the tiny Marie being in charge, for a short time at least, of the likes of Napolean.

Doctor Curtius, Marie’s mentor, was a talented wax anatomist. It was he who instilled in Marie the fascination and obsession with physiology. When, as a lowly servant, she was denied access to the wax models, she would draw instead. The book’s wonderful illustrations are the author’s way of presenting how Marie dealt with the challenges and triumphs of her life. Shut away from other people these are her means of connecting with the noise and activity of the tumultuous events that surrounded her.

Edward read the passage from the book where Marie first meets Curtius. He brought the doctor to life.

All writers find ways of not writing. Edward draws, a process that enables him to physically understand his characters. He also sculpted Curtius in wax to better understand the modelling process, that he could write on the subject with some sort of authority.

Marie understands people from their notable features. Her nose and chin, from her mother and father, were her inheritance – proof that she was once loved.

Her greatest mistake was to marry Tussaud – a useless man – but she was strong and survived. She packed up the French Revolution in crates and took her figures to London, telling Tussaud she would return. In this way she gained autonomy at a time when such freedom were made difficult for any woman to achieve.

Edward has visited Times Square where an enormous gold hand holds a sign for the Madame Tussauds there. He believes this would have pleased Marie, although she would not have been so happy that her family sold the business.

Curtius and Marie were not the first to display wax models for public entertainment but they became the most famous. They recognised that people wished to see royalty, celebrities and murderers.

The French royal family would allow observers into their palace once a week to watch them eat. Marie drew this scene and wax models were made of the spectacle which the public could then touch for a fee. This removed social barriers – the whiff of somewhat scandalous behaviour generating publicity.

Over time Marie became a savvy businesswoman. By casting the famous in wax, those who believed they too were famous wished to be included and came to her.

Edward spoke with passion and vivacity, answering questions and sharing his enthusiasm for his determined little protagonist. When he moved into the adjacent room to sign books a queue quickly formed. It was good to see that he was happy to chat to each purchaser as they proffered their books.

It is always a pleasure to visit Mr B’s. This truly special bookshop is currently crowdfunding to enable them to expand. You may check out the rewards available to supporters here.

Little is published in the UK by Gallic Books. You may read my review here.


Book Review: Little

Little, by Edward Carey, tells the story of Anne Marie Grosholtz, born prematurely in a remote Swiss village in 1761, who would one day become known as Madame Tussaud. Marie’s father was a soldier so she was raised by her mother, moving to Berne when she was six years old. Here she learns the art of modelling with wax from their employer, Doctor Phillipe Curtius. Curtius works for the local hospital creating models from body parts that are used to instruct trainee physicians. Growing depressed by his contact with the dead he branches out, much to the ire of his boss.

Curtius comes to the attention of a French writer, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who suggests the young doctor would find greater appreciation of his skills in Paris. When Curtius is threatened with penury, an attempt to rein him in, he decides to heed this advice. Packing his tools and belongings, including Marie who is now his de facto assistant, he heads into the unknown.

Mercier helps Curtius to find lodgings, suggesting he take rooms with a widow, Charlotte Picot, and her son, Edmond. Widow Picot takes an instant dislike to Marie but accepts her as a house servant so long as she does exactly as she is told. It is the start of a difficult relationship that will enable the widow to prosper by taking full advantage of her power over Curtius. Marie has no choice but to acquiesce if she is to survive.

Picot may be grasping but she has good business sense. The wax faces and figures Curtius makes prove popular and draw a crowd. This includes the young sister of the king and her entourage. The royal visit leads to a change of circumstances for Marie who ends up serving for a time in the Palace of Versailles. When eventually she is forced to leave, it breaks her heart yet proves fortuitous, for soon there are the rumblings of revolution.

Much of note is included within the pages of this book: the medical practices of the eighteenth century; life in Paris when it was a walled and gated city containing mostly wooden buildings; the now famous people who passed through Paris at this time; a first person account of life as a servant within the French Royal Court during the reign of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette; the personal vendettas and tragedies that those trying to live quietly during a revolution suffer. Marie’s changing situation highlights the precarious life and lack of agency endured by a young woman effectively owned by her employer.

This is truly remarkable story. A fictionalised account but based around known facts. The voice created for Marie is perfectly balanced and paced for storytelling. There is a pleasing lack of hyperbole although deep emotions are evoked. It is, quite simply, a darn good read. A contender for my book of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gallic Books


Click on the image above to look inside Little