I mentioned a little while ago that I’d bought Edward Carey’s Observatory Mansions and was excited about reading it, after loving his second novel Alva & Irva last year (more here). I’ve included various different cover images throughout this post, interestingly different. Carey has only had two novels published, in 2001 and 2003, so I’m a bit worried that the novelistic pen has dried up. Here’s hoping not, as Carey might just be my favourite living author… which sounds very impressive until you realise how few living authors I like. But still.
Observatory Mansions is every bit as quirky as Alva & Irva. I probably overuse the word ‘quirky’, but no other description will do for Carey’s work. At the centre of this novel is Francis Orme, whose earns his keep working as a living statue. One of those people entirely painted white, who stand on plinths in the park. He wears the white gloves all the time, though, and recoils at the thought of seeing his hands. When the gloves become dusty or dirty, they are removed and carefully kept in a box, his glove diary. And that’s just the start of the surrealism.
Central to Observatory Mansions is ‘The Exhibition’. Francis steals and catalogues objects ‘soley for the reason that they are loved; that their former owner prized them above his or her other possessions.’ This is everything from someone’s false leg to a treasured photograph to love letters. It’s all kept in the cellar, secretly, and Carey includes a list of all 996 objects at the back of the novel.
And of course Observatory Mansions is itself important. An old mansion divided into flats, once isolated and now on a traffic island in a busy highway, very few tenants remain. And they’re all grotesque, from the ex-teacher who cries and sweats 24 hours a day, to the lady so obsessed with television that the soap opera characters are her reality. The novel opens with the unwelcome arrival of a new tenant, Anna Tap – myopic, chain-smoking, woollen-dress-wearing Anna. Francis exerts much of his energy to get her to leave… but she has a life-altering effect on everyone in Observatory Mansions.
Which sounds like a heart-warming fairy tale. Observatory Mansions definitely isn’t that. As a hero, Francis is incredibly selfish, violent, unkind, and antisocial. I did find The Exhibition difficult… unkindness in novels affects me rather. But Carey’s talent lies in presenting the quirky in such a way as the inconceivable sheds some light on reality, and on human foibles. This novel isn’t the achievement that Alva & Irva is – sections in the middle need some editing, there isn’t the undercurrent of empathy which pervades Alva & Irva – but Observatory Mansions remains evidence of a staggering mind, an author of unusual talent whose name ought to be included amongst the significant writers of today. And since his second novel is better than his first, I’m hoping the trend is ongoing, and waiting for that third novel…