How to review this weird and wonderful book? The setting, characters and plot etc are extraordinary, but it is the language that is utterly bewitching. The fact Peake was also an artist is evident in the special care with which he describes light (or absence of), skin and textures.
It is usually classed as fantasy, but it is more like historical fiction, with an occasional dash of the supernatural - magical realism set in the past. Or is it? This first volume has a profound sense of place (Gormenghast castle is arguably the main character and its inhabitants “could not imagine a world outside it”) but a very vague sense of time. They have got to the 77th earl, but electricity, motor vehicles and even guns are unknown.
There are similarities with Dickens (characterisation and odd names for people), Kafka (insignificant individual subsumed by tradition and procedure; also hard to locate the historical period), and Tolkein is often mentioned though I can't see much of a similarity. Conversely, it might perhaps be a minor influence for Paul Stewart's Edge Chronicles for children.
It is whimsical, detailed, leisurely, poignant, vivid, gothic, with caricatures (but believable, not surreal) and Peake sometimes meanders along lengthy diversions (e.g. when likening the cracks in plaster to an ancient map, he goes on to imagine journeys across such a landscape) and conjure strange metaphors, "clean she was... in the sense of a rasher of bacon"!
The title relates to the birth of Titus, a male heir to the ancient house of Groan. However, it is really a richly imagined story of an enclosed world, suffocating under the weight of detailed and largely pointless arcane ritual: “If, for instance, his Lordship... had been three inches shorter, the costumes, gestures and even the routes would have differed from those described in the first tome” and “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held... but the formality was no less sacred for it being unintelligible”.
It explains how a clever upstart, Steerpike, quickly goes from rebel to opportunist to schemer, plotting his rise to power and influence. There is also a sub plot concerning Keda, a woman from the mud huts outside the castle where the skilled Bright Carvers live.
It is always a page-turner though at times the plot is slow because the descriptions are so rich. It will certainly improve your vocabulary, though even the unfamiliar words are used so carefully that you can get the gist if you don’t have a dictionary to hand. At other times, Peake conveys a great deal in relatively few words: “Lord Sepulchrave walked with slow strides, his head bowed. Fuchsia mouched. Doctor Prunesquallor minced. The twins propelled themselves forward vacantly. Flay spidered his path. Swelter wallowed his.” which tells you most of what you need to know about almost all the main characters.
There are macabre episodes (Peake is not afraid to kill off significant characters in nasty ways), but also moments of wonder (the sky pavement), mystery (the death owl) and humour (a comic cat-and-mouse fight in almost total darkness, except for occasional flashes of lightning). In a crucial scene, one character throws a cat, with consequences that affect everyone for many years. It was possibly inspired by Peake's favourite Dickens, "Bleak House", which he illustrated. According to Peter Winnington's excellent biography of Peake (http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/597014341), an irate character says, "I should like to throw a cat at you".
You can tell that Peake was also an artist because many of the descriptions are so vividly visual, especially, skin, masonry and candle wax (“His face was very lined, as though it had been made of brown paper that had been crunched by some savage hand before being hastily smoothed out and spread over the tissues.”). Perhaps that is also why carvings are such a big deal in Gormenghast: the annual competition is explained near the beginning of the novel, rivalries are fierce and the carvers’ skill is the only reason the “dwellers” are tolerated so near the castle.
For a few chapters, the narrative switches to the present tense, for no obvious reason (“A Change of Colour” to the end of “Here and There”) and Peake is oddly and confusingly inconsistent in how he refers to some people (The Earl of Groan and Lord Sepulchrave are one and the same and his sisters are indeed his sisters, even though they are also referred to as his daughter’s mother’s cousins and his daughter’s cousins).
I love the second volume as well (Gormenghast), but be warned that the third (Titus Alone), is totally different and not nearly as good – but which I have reviewed.
Nevertheless, I still think this is one of the best-written books I know and, like all great works, only improves with each rereading.
And here is some of what China Miéville says about it:
"The dislocation and fascination we feel, the intoxication, is testimony to the success of his simple certainty. Our wonder is not disbelief but belief, culture-shock at this vast, strange place. We submit to this reality that the book asserts even as it purports not to."
"What faces us is not a radical and violent estrangement so much as a sustained sense of almost-familiarity, of not-quite-familiarity, a strong but wrong recognition."
"It is in the names, above all, perhaps, that Peake's strategy of simultaneous familiarising and defamiliarising reaches its zenith; Rottcodd, Muzzlehatch, Sourdust, Crabcalf, Gormenghast itself... such names are so overburdened with semiotic freight, stagger under such a profusion of meanings, that they end up as opaque as if they had none. 'Prunesquallor' is a glorious and giddying synthesis, and one that sprays images – but their portent remains unclear."
Here's the whole article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jul/01/mervyn-peake-gormenghast?INTCMP=SRCH
A selection of my favourite quotes are here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/310390629
All my Peake/Gormenghast reviews now have their own shelf: