The Murdstone Trilogy: A Novel
- By Mal Peet
- Candlewick Press
- 313 pp.
- Reviewed by Jeffrey Krizman
- September 7, 2015
A novel with a good premise and a strong start that, unfortunately, declines as it grows in absurdity.
This book — the final by the late British YA author Mal Peet, and the only of his works aimed at adults — opens with a bitter, misanthropic novelist, Phillip Murdstone, who is compelled by his agent to create a grown-up world of fantasy (by way of Tolkien and the King Arthur tales) when he is already famous for stories about disabled children overcoming adversity.
That wonderfully cynical agent, Minerva Cinch, represents how stereotypical businesses view their customers and conduct transactions. Murdstone conjures a creature, Pocket Wellfair, to help him write his story; however, this eventually leads to a second narrative that has an entirely different plot.
The first act of the book is grounded well enough, including magical facets like the aforementioned creature, Wellfair, and seems to be about Murdstone’s struggle to meet the demands of the publishing industry, the world at large, and his mental creations.
Soon after, however, the story changes tone and content, diverging into a second tale more about Murdstone’s creatures and fantasy world than himself: His fantasies literally invade his life via a quirky, obsessive relationship.
The tone and content shift regularly until the final chapter, eventually making the entire first act feel rather out of place. It is a drastic change, jarring really, that grows in absurdity and unbelievability until it barely resembles its starting point.
This is not the normal rise in tension expected of a traditional narrative or the kind of story which uses subversion or extremism for its bread and butter, for there are many points where chapters drone on. Not all the scenes are poorly written, not by any means, but some are lacking in content when compared to their length.
Still, a few sections are gems, like when Murdstone actually writes the stories, and we see a montage of what happens in his fantasy world. These scenes are clear, vivid, rapid, and well-built. Other sections, though, have the distinct feeling of the writer’s hands forcefully spreading them out like a pizzeria does dough.
The writer inserts himself most heavily during dialogue. Barring the occasional extra beat in sentence rhythm and characters, ostensibly asking questions to deliver exposition, both Murdstone and Wellfair use fake words, which generate confusion.
I think I understand what “fluke” means in the context of “Fluke me,” but the book is riddled with other words that are harder to decipher and are ultimately frustrating and distracting, like “thrapple.” It’s a nice gimmick, since it relates to the commentary about the fantasy genre, but it goes a bit too far and on for a bit too long.
Similarly, the analogies are often used as substitutes for showing what things look like, particularly in the beginning of the book. They’re like talk shows on an old analog radio — you might be able to make out what they’re saying, but it’s seldom ever clear.
For example, “They gargoyled at him” and “His brain scrambled for coordinates like a drowning spider clutching at the radials of a plug hole.” These analogies become reoccurring, high barriers to entry into the story, either because they’re overly perplexing or I genuinely wanted to know what happened and what something looked like. Scene setup, in general, is a persistent problem.
These issues aside, I must reveal if the book’s humor, a particular selling point proclaimed on its cover and noted on its back, succeeds. I thoroughly enjoyed the gems that crop up when the first story indulges in Murdstone’s cynical personality and his precarious situations.
However, roughly coinciding with where the second story starts, the humor unexpectedly shifts to the juvenile: sex puns, sex hallucinations, sex…well, sex in many forms. Suddenly changing the humor so drastically is also jarring. Coupled with the increasing rate of jokes, it not only doesn’t have much impact, it’s also annoying.
All said, the premise of The Murdstone Trilogy is interesting, but the further into the story you read, the more it becomes overburdened with flawed execution. But if you can look past (or perhaps enjoy) the structural issues, you may enjoy this book — especially if you’re someone who reads stories for the journey, and not the destination.
Jeffrey Krizman, who interned at the Independent this summer, is a student at Emerson College working on a BFA in writing, literature, and publishing. He is also finishing his first high-fantasy novel.