Review - Gormenghast
August 3, 2009
Gormenghast – a word that fills the mouth, that undulates with waves of hard and soft, that tricks the tongue into thinking it can escape with a fading sibilance, only to be brought to heel hard fast with that final 't'. It is a magnificent word for the sprawling thing Mervyn Peake calls a "castle" in the book of the same name.
In the foreword, Tad Williams describes the castle as a character in-and-of itself. He is right to do so. As a place, as a series of traditions, as the complex sum of countless people wheeling in and out of the timeless, deathless halls, it occupies the place of precedence for the first portion of the book. Peake is an incredible wordsmith – a thousand words are worth a portrait – and at times the elaborate castle and character descriptions nearly bore me. But then along would come a moment of whimsy too charming to abandon.
Eventually the human characters become the focus, and the castle fades into mere setting rather than overlord. Although the tale meanders, at times, it is all to the author's credit. In so doing, he sets the stage for the actual protagonist's ultimate struggle for freedom: a struggle inversely personified by a human bit in actuality with Gormenghast itself.
Nothing in the book indicates a definite time, place, or religion. Although it clearly comes from a Western European mileu, it is not at all difficult to imagine changing a few names and titles, thereby turning this into a novel of Confucian rebellion in deepest China. Nevertheless, there were several points at which the author strayed painfully into stereotypes that perhaps reveal his era (published 1950).
This is a brilliant and highly imaginative work. It has the power to open your eyes and turn your thinking inside-out as few books do. I look forward to reading the two wings of this trilogy.