Mervyn Peake has long been one of my favourite authors. So when, late last year, I discovered a book by him that I hadn’t read (or even known about), I was eager to get my hands on a copy. ‘Letters From a Lost Uncle’ was, according to my (then) local bookshop, unavailable. But when I tried again last month at my new local book shop (called Bookshrop – as in a bookshop in Shropshire – get it?) it was available. But I didn’t bother in the end. Only joking – of course I ordered a copy straight away!
Mervyn Peake is best known for the Ghormenghast trilogy – three novels (like most trilogies) based in a mythical realm, and following the central character of Titus Groan, seventy-seventh Earl of Ghormenghast. Peake wasn’t prolific. I remember a TV adaptation, many decades ago now, of his only other novel, MrPye. He did write poetry as well mind, and childrens’ books, and was a talented artist and illustrator.
Peake’s characters are somewhat surreal, but his powers of description and his creative imagination were, in my humble opinion, second to none. He’s able to draw you into worlds, and to have you believing in characters you know couldn’t possibly be real. ‘Letters From a Lost Uncle’ is not so much a novel as a picture book. Each page consists of a drawing, or series of drawings, in pencil, with a typed (on a typewriter – remember those?) piece of paper cut out and stuck on over the top (cut and paste just isn’t the same nowadays!)
The style of writing is simplistic – narrated by someone who supposedly isn’t used to writing. It’s the story of an arctic explorer, told through his letters to a nephew he’s never met. I don’t know that it’s a childrens’ book as such, though it could well appeal to, and be easily understood by even quite young children. There aren’t any themes in it you would describe as adult, and it’s an easy read (and short, as there’s only a small amount of text on most of the pages). The real joy is in the artwork. The drawings are superb, and bring the story to life. The whole endeavour is a triumph of the imagination, the writing is funny and endearing, and despite the fantastical nature of the story and characters, really draws you in, building to a satisfying conclusion.
I read the book in three short sittings, with a smile on my face the whole time. I would say I was sad when I’d finished, but unlike most books, there really isn’t an end – I know I can spend plenty of time looking through it again and again because of those astonishing drawings. Who knows, maybe I’ll come across more by Mervyn Peake that I didn’t know existed? In the meantime, I’m thinking that perhaps I might re-read some of the books I do know about quite soon.
text © Graham Wright 2020