Patrick DeWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor opens with a scene that will be familiar to a lot of first year university students; the narrator Lucy (male, short for Lucian) is leaving home for a new life, where he will try new things, escape any past mistakes, and leave the people of his hometown marvelling in his wake. While he fails at the latter, his determination is admirable.
Our sheltered hero has a very simple view on life. When somebody steals his pipe, he simply goes and asks for it back; when a rival suitor appears on the scene he decides the only sensible course of action is to kill him. In other hands this could come across as a lack of depth, and elsewhere DeWitt has been criticised for making his characters too literal, but Lucy’s honesty and naivety throughout the book (including during some rather gruesome and risqué scenes) make him extremely sympathetic, and his black-and-white outlook makes for a refreshing read.
A straightforward narrative style ensures the various storylines are not laborious, and the simplicity means you are constantly focused. This is what is most enjoyable about the novel—by mixing murder, sex and loss with a familiar premise, DeWitt has produced a novel that is genuinely fun to read, without losing its emotional core. For the most part, the simplicity drives the comedy.
For example, there is a very large hole, which is plainly called “the Very Large Hole” and Lucy’s conversations with his superior Mr Olderglough are deadpan even when they are discussing murder. The whole narrative is conducted extremely eloquently—everyone in the story is very polite. Even the young vagabond, Mewe, is articulate to the extreme. The stony humour is reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, with slightly more adult themes.
The unfiltered candour reveals many an awkward situation, bordering on the ridiculous. But this still feels logical in the story, because Lucy works for a secretive Baron; so what else would you expect? The castle and its secrets are, as Lucy says himself, “quite beyond his experience,” and as a reader you relish his nervous determination. At the start of the book Lucy is childlike, delighting in extravagant lies and stories.
The war that is going on around the castle where most of the story takes place is never explained. The soldiers assume Lucy will not be able to understand it. When he witnesses a rather scandalous rendezvous between the Baron and his guests, he is not offended, but rather confused by what the point of it all was. He is not a classic gothic hero, despite the setting, and his general misjudgement of the people around him leads to more comic situations, where he valiantly tries to impress everyone.
Of course, there is a girl, and the hero must find a way to get said girl. Your sympathy for Lucy increases as you watch him struggle with his emotions. Some might find his teenage self-pity trying, but we’ve all been there before, and the speed of the narrative keeps the plot moving along. There are poignant moments both for Lucy and his companions, heartbreak and death, and despite this being primarily a funny book, these moments are still genuinely touching.
Lucy meets a stereotyped but vibrant cast of characters; the ageing butler, the mysterious Baroness, and the valiant soldier are just a few. The characters of Memel and Mewe, despite being criminals, are very kind to Lucy, and offer him help and guidance. The same goes for Mr Olderglough, the Baron, and Agnes the cook. What is interesting about them is the lack of information that is given to us about their pasts, and the secrets that they keep from Lucy.
Their stories intertwine with his own, revealing themselves slowly, with small but satisfying twists lifting the plot throughout the novel. The other characters’ anecdotes, stories within stories, embellish Lucy’s world. There are also funny little references back to previous situations in the book, complementing the fairy tale theme with a cyclical history. However our hero doesn’t really learn from his mistakes.
There are some loose ends left at the completion of the story, events never explained, mysteries never solved, and this is disappointing. This is where the novel is less satisfying, as there is no clear cut “happy ending” or closure. However, the characters and the setting are classic and the boldness of the story means you easily engage with Lucy’s adventure. The storyline has enough deviations from a typical model to be interesting without being too complicated. DeWitt finds a balance between dark humour and slapstick comedy, romance and sorrow, and life and death.
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