Book review: The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep by H. G. Parry

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

If you’re an inveterate reader, you will be well acquainted with the inestimable pleasure of losing yourself for hour upon hour in a good book.

But what if instead of you diving headlong into it, the book, particularly the characters cane rushing out to meet you?

That’s exactly what happens in the supremely imaginative debut novel by H. G. Parry, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, where our often doggedly un-literary world becomes full of characters from a host of novels, many of them Dickensian or dating from the Victorian period of the nineteenth century.

Full to the magical brim with action, adventure and a real love for books and the joys they bring, whether diversionary or critically-inclined, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is a gem, a heartfelt tale of brotherhood restored, literature awoken and worlds colliding.

It is, quite simply, a postmodern triumph that takes the premise of books truly coming alive – we talk about it metaphorically but in this case characters like David Copperfield, Sherlock Holmes and Dorian Grey are roaming the streets of Wellington, New Zealand (and indeed, much of the world) where the book is set – and makes merry with them in ways that are whimsical, enchanting and at times, intensely moving.

A clever conceit that’s realised with nary a false step, the novel explores what would happen to the world if a Summoner, someone who can conjure the characters from words alone into things of reasonably-approximate flesh-and-blood people, wanted to recreate a literary dystopia in the heart of a real world city.

“From the first glance, I knew he wasn’t real. He was a figment, the kind Charley pulled from books, larger than life and more vivid. His rugged, swarthy features had the air of something elemental, hald-animal and exotic. Still, he might have passed for an unusually well-built man, if it hadn’t been for his eyes. Under the bristling black brows, they burned—literally burned—with flickering black flame. Something like that is hard to ignore.

Charley frowned, then his face cleared. ‘Heathcliff,’ he said, with something like awe.” (P. 60)

There is a darkness at the heart of this novel, borne largely of the works of Dickens, who invested his magnificent books with a great deal of criticism of Victorian England’s deeply unjust and broken social order.

While many have the tendency to romanticise this period, beneath all the triumphs and glories of the British Empire at its height there was a great deal of malevolence abroad and at home, darkness lurking beneath the picture-perfect images that surges through Dickens’ works and many other novels of the period.

It’s that dark underside that propels the action in The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Keep, which has a quirky, fun persona and a profoundly emotionally-resonant core which makes the reading of the book a compelling prospect however you slice it.

While you are delighted and enchanted every which way but Sunday, and even then really, truth be told, by the appearance of so many characters in the here and now such as Mr Darcy (x5 thank you!), the Witch from The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, The Artful Dodger, Scheherazade and Roald Dahl’s Matilda, you are drawn deeply and irrevocably into the story by its focus on the mistakes we all make relating to the ones we love and the ramifications that can have down the track.

So, in effect H. G. Parry serves up an inventively adventurous but thoughtfully clever book that feels like all your literary fantasies come to life while tackling some very dark and painful parts of the human experience in such perfect balance that neither feels like its diminishes the other.

H. G. Parry (image courtesy official Twitter account)

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is a marvellously engrossing novel that has so many fabulously immersive ideas percolating through it.

Take the literary characters made flesh who can exist in a number of different permutations depending on who has conjured them up and their critical take on that particular protagonist or antagonist; so while the hero of the story, Dr Charles aka Charley Sutherland, summons his characters in one way, depending on his critique of the moment – he’s a professor at a university in Wellington specialising in Victorian literature so he is always writing about characters, with every treatise informing how they manifest and how they behave when they do – his nemesis, whose identity is shrouded until well into the novel, has a wholly darker take on things.

It’s such a breathtakingly inspired idea and it means that you can have multiple versions of the same characters running around him, all of who largely the same but tempered by differences that are unique to the Summoner who brought them forth.

This is key because at the heart of the book’s non-step but ruminative narrative sits a battle between the two Summoners, one of whom has been hampered and repressed by his loving but fearful family and thus takes a limited and almost academic interest in his summoning (Charley) and his opponent who inhabits a far more corrupted plane, their resentment and blackened narcissism influencing their grand plan to bring a literary world made flesh that supplants our own bricks-and-mortar reality.

On Charley’s side is his older brother Robert, a lawyer who loves his idiosyncratic younger brother but is frustrated by his quirky otherness and constant ability to interrupt his brother’s quiet life of domestic bliss with his partner Lydia, a character he conjured up many years earlier Millie Radcliffe-Dix, the protagonist from a made-up series of Girls Own-type novels and his parents who are hiding a few secrets of their own.

“It was so quick, and so unexpected, I didn’t realize at first what had happened. I’m not sure anyone did. Moriarty screamed, a high, shrill sound of more anger than pain. The city convulsed. The floor rocked under my feet; the walls around us bulged and flew apart; the sky was suddenly the color of blood. Outside, I could hear the cries of the combatants as the ground split into jagged lines.

Fagin stepped forward. His features were blurred and melted, his red hair sprouted, and once again, I found myself looking at the face of Uriah Heep.” (P. 402)

At its heart, this rip-roaring, fight-to-the-words-come-alive-death is a story of two brothers trying to work out who they are together.

It’s a dynamic that has plagued the two siblings since Charley came home from the hospital when Rob was 4 1/2, showing a prodigious intelligence and talent for literature and learning that left his older brother feeling constantly overshadowed.

Complicating the relationship even further is Charley’s unique abilities which while thrilling to those of us who marvel at the idea of book characters rushing up to meet us in real life and not just in our imagination, annoy Rob no end, who remains, like his parents, fearful of what might happen to Charley if words gets out about what he can do.

This fear means that the two brothers are both close and not, and much of the emotional impact of The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep comes from the fact that this near 30-year stand-off is challenged like never before as Charley his unwanted-arch nemesis clash, forcing Charley to truly come into his own, something that Rob and his parents have always discouraged though not without inhibiting profoundly Charley’s ability to be his own person and be proud of who he is.

This perfectly wonderful book is a delight on just about every level – whimsical but grounded, gallivanting adventure infused with some real life lessons, a magically vivacious love letter to literature, the characters we love, the joys and challenges of family and the capacity all of us have to remake life as we need it to be, especially when its very fabric is under attack and may cease to exist altogether.

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