Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Let's Kill Uncle by Rohan O'Grady

Reposted from GeraniumCat's Bookshelf


The Bloomsbury Group's reissues are almost always must-reads and this -- one I'd never heard of -- turned out to be pure delight.

The S.S. Haida Prince is arriving at a island on the west of Canada with two children on board:
The deck steward, an ex-fighter with sloping, powerful shoulders, approached them.
"Excuse me, sir," he said. "Do you know anything that will dissolve chewing gum? Something that won't dissolve a dog?"
The first mate and the purser exchanged glances.
"Them?" asked the first mate.
"Yes, sir. One of the border collies in the hold. Its muzzle is glued together. They just thought he'd like a wad of gum, the little bastards."
Although the island looks idyllic, one of the sailors describes how it is cursed:
"In two world wars thirty-three men have left to fight for their country. Only one has come back alive. See that Mountie on the dock? He's the fellow. All the rest killed, down to the last man. If there such a thing as a dead island, this is it."
The island has no idea what's going to hit it. The children, who are nothing to do with each other, are exceedingly unprepossessing. The girl, Christie, has come to board on the island for the summer to give her a holiday from her single mother, while Barnaby is supposed to be holidaying with his uncle, but the uncle hasn't turned up. Fortunately, Mr and Mrs Brooks at the store volunteer to look after the boy while his uncle is contacted. But things start badly because on the boat trip the children have decided they are sworn enemies. Of course the adults don't realise this and next morning Barnaby sent to play with Christie in the expectation that it will be nice for them both. Mayhem ensues, and the Mountie has to intervene.

It is Christie, however, who finally learns why Barnaby is so troubled - heir to a large fortune, he is certain that the uncle who appears so kindly to everyone else is actually out to kill him. Whenever he tries to explain this, Uncle says sadly what a wicked and deluded little boy he is. Once Christie is persuaded that the danger is real, she comes up with a solution: they must kill Uncle first. In this, they are unwillingly assisted by a battered, one-eyed cougar who is, to his annoyance and humiliation, befriended by the children. Hence the adorable Edward Gorey cover which graced the original edition:


The children and their troubles are real and immediate, their bickering and ingratitude a very plausible reaction to their bewildering new circumstances. Christie finds herself unwittingly echoing that earlier exile, Heidi, with her bed in the attic of the goat-lady's house. Barnaby, meanwhile, becomes an instant substitute for the Brooks boy who went off to war -- expected to eat Dickie's favourite supper of bread-and-milk he throws the bowl in fury at the wall. Fortunately, the goat-lady, Mrs Neilson, and Sergeant Coulter know how to set some boundaries. Not necessarily any consolation to the long-suffering border collies though.

This gothic little gem is just itching to be turned into a film by Wes Anderson and if, like me, you adored Moonrise Kingdom, you will love it. In fact, it's rather similar in tone and setting and even, to some extent, plot (I wonder if Anderson has read it? I hasten to add, it's only reminiscent of Anderson's film, there's no actual connection that would in any way spoil it for the reader). It was, apparently, made into a horror film in 1966, and I found a copy of the poster:


I suspect that the rather joky appearance is an indication that the film will clumsily eradicate the subtlety of the writing -- although the humour is black, it is gently so, and if Uncle may be something of a comic-book villain, his intended victims belie it. The other adults, in contrast to Uncle, are thoughtfully portrayed, especially the Mountie who, as the only one to make it back from the war, has his own poignant story -- not at all the stuff of horror films.

It's not intended to be a children's book, but young adults would find much to enjoy and, as you must have gathered reading this blog, I'll have no truck with adults who think books with child protagonists beneath them. But anyway, the wit and originality of Let's Kill Uncle should be enough to charm the hardest of hearts.

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