It occurred to me while reading The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart that Jesse Bulllington’s debut novel was very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing,It occurred to me while reading The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart that Jesse Bulllington’s debut novel was very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, and that it was likely to inspire strong reactions either way but would hardly leave anyone indifferent. A brief glance at various online reviews after having finished the book confirmed it – quite a few people (in fact, the majority) loved it, but there was also an uncommonly large number who hated it (and occasionally quite vociferously so), with just a few strays that were lukewarm about it.
While I am quite firmly in the former camp, I can see where people in the latter are coming from, and even understand them to some degree – Bullington obviously has set out to write a novel in the worst taste possible and to offend pretty much every sensibility there is, and he succeeds quite well in that undertaking. His protagonists must be the most unlikeable ones to ever stain the pages of a novel – Manfried and Hegel (! – I really wonder what made Bullington chose that particular name – some bad experience in philosophy lessons at college? or maybe he’s a disciple of Schopenhauer – his world view certainly seems grim enough for that) Grossbart are graverobbers by profession, killers by inclination, and they do not have a single redeeming feature – they commit heinous atrocity upon heinous atrocity with no regard whatsoever for their fellow beings, and really the only thing that might even be vaguely in their favour is that they have people pursuing them who are even more ruthlessly violent than they are (but then, the Grossbarts in a way created those people by their own crimes, so in the final analysis they are responsible for them, too).
And Jesse Bullington does not pull his punches either – he does not gloss over the violence or let the horror fade to black, his descriptions of the countless atrocities committed in the course of the novel are stark and graphic. They are not, however, torture porn – the novel does not wallow in the violence, it always keeps a detached, distanced perspective on things. Which works not always in its favour, as it often comes across as a rather cold affair that shuts the reader out – but I for one can not see how that could have been avoided. Certainly not by having the reader sympathize with any of the characters, because there is nobody here one would want to sympathize with.
Not everything in The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is grossness and crudity, though – it is quite often very funny, namely in those moments where the brothers who, utterly amoral redneck hicks that they may be, have a philosophical bend to their minds and are fond of discussing all kinds of obscure and abstruse subjects (and I suppose from this point, it makes perfect sense that one of them is called Hegel), like the question of what parts of a mermaid are edible before one descends from fish dinner into cannibalism. Apart from being very comical, those debates also give the author an excellent chance to show off his erudition, which is considerable (or else very well faked), all of which makes The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart come across as the punk version of an Umberto Eco novel.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart is a veritable witch’s brew of genres – picaresque novel and Italo Western, historical novel and horror, and I suspect that somewhere deep inside of this tale is an Epic Fantasy tale that is crying (or possibly whimpering) to be let out. It is emphatically not for everyone, but those who do not easily take offense and have a taste for the weird and unusual should find this novel highly enjoyable....more
A – if not the – distinctive trait of Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series has always been the way he has kept things in the balance between rationA – if not the – distinctive trait of Phil Rickman’s “Merrily Watkins” series has always been the way he has kept things in the balance between rational and possibly supernatural explanations for the events transpiring. Individual novels have been leaning to more towards the one side or the other, and To Dream of the Dead – the tenth volume in the series – not only shifts the balance towards the rational, but is the installment with the least amount of supernatural elements in the whole series so far, turning the novel almost into a “normal” mystery.
It is probably symptomatic for this is that it takes until the third chapter for Merrily to make her first appearance, and that the novel starts out with DI Frannie Bliss, who we will continue to follow for a substantial part of the novel (and who will have some… interesting developments in his life in the course of it). To me, the main attraction of the series has, from the first volume onwards always been its depiction of British village life, and more specifically on the Welsh-English border, with both the mystery and the supernatural elements just providing the plot devices to move the novels from one location and one character to the next, so I’m fine with the changing emphasis. And Rickman still delivers on giving a realistic and fascinating portrait of the contemporary British countryside – however, it cannot be denied that there has been some chang in tone over the last few volumes as well, not so much in emphasis as in tone: The novels have become increasingly bleak and bitter, the countryside becoming a less and less pleasurable place.
Rickman never presented his readers with an idyll – right from the start he showed all the pettiness and intolerance rural communities are capable of. But there also was a sense of belonging and of community that tied people together, a pride in their regional heritage, and the last few novels in the series have shown how that increasingly disappears, eaten away by greedy politicians, ruthless businessmen, destroyed by disregard for environment, history or indeed other people. It has not quite reached the point where things would start to get depressing, but the more recent novels have become considerably darker than the early installments. I do wonder where the series is going if it keeps up this trend, but I’ll most likely continue to follow it to wherever that is, as I’m fairly confident that Rickman’s portrayal does indeed accurately reflect the changes in the way of life in rural Britain, as sad as that is. And of course, because I still like to spend time with Merrily, Jane, Lol and the other recurring characters Rickman has assembled over the course of ten novels. The “Merrily Watkins” series might not be the most flashy of crime series, might deliver neither the most nail-biting tension nor the most puzzling mysteries, but it has carved out a niche all of its own and one that I have enjoyed visiting every time so far....more