Saturday, July 31, 2004

A Series of Unpleasant Episodes

A House Called Awful End, by Philip Ardagh, Read by Martin Rayner, Random House Inc., 2003

This book is a shame. It's not bad enough to get a good rollicking laugh at, like some books, and it's not good enough to really enjoy. Ardagh puts in a workmanlike effort of telling a story filled with eccentrics and nonsense that just doesn't ever quite get off the ground. At the risk of sounding like that scold Harold Bloom, Roald Dahl did it better. Perhaps children are less discriminating and I'm missing the target-audience qualities that shine in the 7+ set, yet there are children's books that I do enjoy.

I should also mention right off the bat that the title feels like a cheat, like a bit of bait. You think that a house called Awful End will be rather terrible or exciting or something. The house is only mentioned as a destination and only shows up in the very last minutes of the reading. And to add insult to injury, there's nothing awful about it.

The story told is that of Eddie Dickens, whose parents get quite ill by "turning yellow and going crinkly around the edges." Because of this, Eddie is sent to live with his aunt and uncle. When Eddie meets his Mad Great Uncle Jack, his uncle is hiding inside of Eddie's mother's wardrobe. Moving in with him involves peculiar instructions such as never wearing anything green and drinking five glasses of lukewarm water daily.

The book is very English with that queer British humor and quirky characters, but all of it misfires, as though Ardagh wanted to go further, crazier, darker, only he felt he shouldn't because he was writing for children. It's really disappointing, as I do enjoy British humor quite a bit and would like Ardagh to really let go.

For a sample of the curious style of humor, consider this passage in which eleven-year-old Eddie pines for home.

This was only the third time in his entire life he'd been away from home, and it felt strange. THe first time he'd been away from home was when he'd been sent to sea. That was from when he was a year old until he was old enough to go to school. The second time had been from when he was old enough to go to school until his tenth birthday. No wonder it felt so odd.

Most of the humorous passages are either this kind of unstated joke or are plays on cliches. Eddie's parents are said to have spent good money to turn him into a little gentleman, having earlier tried to spend bad money but only getting that returned. Eddie's mother has a petname for her son, Jonathan, which she uses when she's unable to remember his actual name, and she has another name, Simon, she uses when she can neither remember Eddie's given name nor her petname for him.

Eddie's nutty parents are confined to their beds for their health where they must suck on ice the shape of famous generals and are only allowed to get out three times a day which they do for fun reasons like shark hunting and sword fighting. They feel trapped in bed when it catches on fire because they have already been out of bed three times that day. They escape through flawless logic, as the doctor provided them with one circumstance that they could exceed the three outs: if they needed to go to the bathroom. It reads funnier in summation than it is presented in the book.

The book, as it was written for a young relative in short bursts, is very episodic and doesn't have a really fleshed out feeling of a novel that has an actual destination. It has a made-up-as-it-goes-along quality and this doesn't really help. The complications just happen, and their resolution likewise happens as though you were hearing a somewhat poor ad libber fumble for a good enough end. And the book comes to a close just like that.

The reader, Martin Rayner, who has a promising delivery and a smooth voice, is wasted here, though one hopes he gets more work.

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