“Lucien (Lucy) Minor is the resident odd duck in the bucolic hamlet of Bury. Friendless and loveless, young and aimless, he is a compulsive liar and a melancholy weakling. When Lucy accepts employment assisting the majordomo of the remote, forbidding castle of the Baron Von Aux he meets thieves, madmen, aristocrats, and a puppy. He also meets Klara, a delicate beauty who is, unfortunately, already involved with an exceptionally handsome partisan soldier. Thus begins a tale of polite theft, bitter heartbreak, domestic mystery and cold-blooded murder in which every aspect of human behaviour is laid bare for our hero to observe. Lucy must stay safe, and protect his puppy, because someone or something is roaming the corridors of the castle late at night.
Undermajordomo Minor is a triumphant ink-black comedy of manners by the Man Booker-shortlisted author of The Sisters Brothers. It is an adventure story, and a mystery, and a searing portrayal of rural Alpine bad behaviour with a brandy tart, but above all it is a love story. And Lucy must be careful, for love is a violent thing.” (Granta Books)
All the way back in 2012 I read a book so quickly that I almost inhaled it and that, at the time, I enjoyed but didn’t love. The book was The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt and while I may not have loved it, it has left a lasting impression on me, as it’s always at the forefront of my mind when I try to recall books I’ve read in recent years. Considering this is numbering in the hundreds, I think it says a lot about the quality of The Sisters Brothers and its author. Naturally I was excited to learn that deWitt had a new book being released this year, but I was concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Thankfully it met and then exceeded my expectations.
DeWitt’s latest novel, Undermajordomo Minor, is the story of Lucien ‘Lucy’ Minor, a boy who is all but an outcast in his home village. When we first meet him he is on his deathbed and after making a miraculously strange recovery, he accepts a position as the assistant majordomo at the Castle von Aux. It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the castle, the most notable concerns being the unexplained disappearance of the previous undermajordomo, and the identity of the strange figure who stalks the castle corridors at night. Lucy makes friends with thieves, falls in love, finds himself in the midst of a war of obscure origins, witnesses some incredibly sordid events in the castle’s ballroom, and discovers the secrets of The Very Large Hole; all of this wrapped up in 337 pages that seem to be over as quickly as they begin.
Everything about it—the Alpine setting, dark castle, and strange cast of characters—reads like a Gothic fable, and shining through is deWitt’s wry sense of humour, which is truly the gem of this novel. He has a very conversational way of writing, as though he is in the room telling you the story rather than you reading it on the page. It’s a book packed with emotions, with almost every one you can imagine on display: love, fear, loneliness, jealousy, sorrow, happiness – the list goes on. As such, there is real humanity buried within the pages and despite the wry narrative, there are some moments that are exceedingly beautiful and that almost light up the page. None more so than when deWitt writes of the first song from a lonely pet bird who has been mute up until this point:
“…finally, Peter sang his long-lost tune. It came out in purling currents, as though his keeping it in had been agony. Peter sang to his reflection, sang a love song to himself, for he was no longer alone, and the world was filled with unmapped possibilities.”
There is nothing I disliked about this book and it’s not often that I say that. From the opening chapter to the last, Undermajordomo Minor was a genuinely fun book to read and is one that I could have easily read in one sitting if I had the time. Once I’ve read a book I’m not likely to read it again, with very few exceptions. I can safely say that this is one of those exceptions.
*This review first appeared in The Australia Times – Books magazine.