I can recall describing characters as crafty, heroic, clever, villainous, adorable, cantankerous, snarky, angry, and hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever had to describe a character as clueless. Mortimer, the protagonist of Fiona Vigo Marshall’s The House of Marvellous Books, is one of the most naive characters I’ve come across in fiction. Although he is intelligent enough to talk about theology, Proust, St. Brendan, and the finer points of British cakes, he never picks up on the schemes and machinations swirling around him during the eventful year in which the publishing house where he works teeters on the edge of disaster and corporate takeover. It’s a curious feeling, wanting for everything to turn out well for a character while at the same time wanting to throttle them until they get a bloody clue. It’s even more curious that I rather enjoyed the book, once I settled into the narrative.
Mortimer Blackley is the kind of person who can only function in a specific niche. His skills and knowledge are only useful (sort of) at the House of Marvellous Books. If it weren’t for the fact that the House is located inside an unsellable medieval library, it wouldn’t function either. When you see the titles they publish—by a camper-van traveling nun who has a flexible attitude to her vow of silence, a sailing cleric who accepts advances for books she fails to write, Welsh hermit poets, and various pseudo-academic cranks—you’ll see why the House is on the edge of ruin. Mortimer wiles his workdays away eating cake and tea with his colleagues, attempting to beard the Design Department in their den, and pestering authors to turn in manuscripts. On the weekends he reads À la recherche du temps perdu, visits his uncle south of London, works on his manuscript about the journeys of St. Brendan, and tries (fails) to avoid doing favors for an old friend who is currently serving a sentence for stealing rare manuscripts from libraries across Britain and Europe.
In the background of all of this pretentious silliness, we get hints about what’s really going on behind the scenes at the House. There’s the editor in chief, who has the misfortune of contracting brain fever in this day and age. Gerard pops in and out of the narrative as he attempts to keep the House afloat, even at the cost of selling to a mysterious group of Russians. He’s a sweet man but, like Mortimer, is in over his head when it comes to everything except poetry and leading the life of a country gentleman. The senior commissioning editor, Drusilla, meanwhile, has enlisted their disaster of a secretary to try and find the lost Daybreak Manuscript and sell it to the Pope (a plan to keep the House going a little loner). Other characters wage their own battles against poor punctuation, the House’s intractable and incompetent warehouse, scam artists, and rival publishers.
Mortimer, as I’ve said, is oblivious to most of this. At first, I was a little annoyed at him. How could anyone be so sheltered as to not see that the House is mere millimeters from collapse? But I was eventually won over by his helpfulness and kindness towards others. The fact that he can’t see what’s going on means that he will never betray anyone (no matter how annoying he finds them or how put upon he feels in returning books stolen by his friend to various libraries). It would never occur to him to step on someone else to try and get up the ladder ahead of them. I might describe him as the most clueless character in fiction but his naivete just means that he’s also one of the good-est characters I’ve ever seen (if only by default). I was also won over by his love of creature comforts, his contentment with his life as it is, and his silliness. This weird little book had me laughing more than once.
The House of Marvellous Books might not grab you from the first page. It resists a lot of the tropes and conventions of fiction by meandering on its multi-layered way through Mortimer’s year. If you give this book a chance, I think you might come to appreciate its quirks because, underneath them, is a very warm heart (possibly covered in crumbs from a lemon drizzle cake).
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.