Patrick deWitt has gone into fractured fairytale territory in his latest novel. Undermajordomo Minor, set somewhere in Europe, sometime in the nineteenth century comes complete with castles, dukes, battles, pickpockets, chambermaids and the titular majordomo.
Lucien “Lucy” Minor needs to leave home. He lands himself a job as assistant to Olderclough, the majordomo of the Castle von Aux. On arrival, Lucy finds that Olderclough’s previous assistant has disappeared in mysterious circumstances and that only one other member of staff is left in the once grand castle. Even the Duchess has left, and the Duke himself is never seen. Lucy is warned to lock his door at night as strange creatures haunt the castle. Lucy befriends two of the villagers – Memel and Mewe and falls hard for the beautiful Klara who is betrothed to a soldier fighting a not too distant war.
Lucy Minor is a fascinating protagonist while being a hard character to like. A liar, a coward, a man who really does not much from life but passionate nonetheless. These are the traits that make Lucy the perfect guide through deWitt’s gothic world. Just as fascinating is the cast of minor characters. Each initially comes across as a gothic type, but this is only to lull reader into a false sense of security, as all have depths of experience and melancholy that make them unique.
In fact, while he has set up a gothic novel, deWitt is constantly subverting the expectations and rules of the genre. While grotesqueries abound and there is the requisite amount of darkness, there is also plenty of humour. The dialogue between Lucy and Olderclough is a particular highlight of deWitt’s droll style.
Reminiscent of writers like Patrick Susskind and Roald Dahl, deWitt has created a modern gothic romance. Stories of love – requited, unrequited, thwarted, betrayed, celebrated, lost and regained – swirl in and around all of the characters. His theme, if there is one, is the violence of love. There are not many happy endings here, but a happy ending is what complacent readers might expect. DeWitt goes for much more complex and truthful endings, always managing to keep both his characters and his readers on their toes.