Tim's Reviews > Observatory Mansions

Observatory Mansions by Edward Carey
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May 20, 12

Read in May, 2012

"Observatory Mansions" sat on my bookshelf for 10 years, doubtless, as the characters in the novel yearn for stasis and anonymity and to stay on their own strange courses, the book wanted to be left alone.

But things change. Change comes even to the seven people who dwell in the flats of Observatory Mansions. Here, the agent of change is an odd woman named Anna Tap, who is going blind.

The story is narrated by Francis Orme, latest in a long line of Francis Ormes, who lives with parents so sedentary they're practically part of the furniture. Francis is at the center of this remarkable tale of grotesque characters nonetheless oddly sympathetic in their isolation. "Observatory Mansions" is that most remarkable of novels, one that immerses us in a uniquely self-contained world whose strangeness seems completely natural because the author's relentless focus has hermetically sealed it like a glassed museum exhibit whose every detail fascinates us. Its atmosphere is all we're allowed to breathe.

Francis keeps in a tunnel beneath Observatory Mansions an "Exhibition of Love," 996 found and (mostly) stolen articles he stores in protective sleeves along with detailed descriptions. One mysterious item, called "The Object," he continuously re-places at the end of his otherwise chronological collection.

Francis wears white gloves. Fired from his job as a living waxwork, he spends time as a human statue atop a plinth in a town square, collecting tips. Like the others in his dwelling, he lives a life of isolation.

Francis: "It is well known that lovers hold hands. It is well known that I wear gloves. It is well known that I never touch anything that could be dirty (human flesh being one example). I could not then hold hands with my lover. Therefore I have no lover."

Anna Tap needles Francis and the others living in Observatory Mansions into contemplation. In this book, everyone is odd. There's "Twenty," aka "Dog Woman," who, scarred by tragedy, acts like a canine. Claire Higg finds reality only in TV programs. Peter Bugg, Francis' former stern and domineering teacher, now is a sweating, crying mess of wetness. A hissing porter named Porter has his own twisted agenda and obsessions. Anna begins asking questions, drawing these eccentric people out of their fugues, MAKING THEM THINK. This is not necessarily a good thing for Observatory Mansions.

Author Edward Carey keeps the atmosphere odd and claustrophobic, but there is humor in Francis' observations, if unintentional on his part. The story (without quotations marks; usually I hate that, but don't here) is told in short segments with clever titles. Anna Tap instigates one episode in which Francis' precious and huge collection of white gloves is strewn everywhere. Francis calls this the Gloves Armageddon Experience.

When Francis' parents begin to climb out of their near-catatonic state and become active characters, the novel changes. His mother and father, reflecting to Francis and Anna, unleash their memories in opposite chronological directions, revealing a great deal about Observatory Mansions and Francis' weird upbringing. It's off-putting at first, but throwing the parents into the tale so suddenly works.

Although the outside world (and, maybe, love?) intrudes at last, this is a fascinating exploration of odd, obsessive people. Carey, also an artist, takes a uniquely twisted look at these people. As evidence of the depth of loving detail in Carey's approach, all 996 items in Francis Orme's Exhibition of Love are listed over 30 pages at the book's end.

"Observatory Mansions" is a fresh, unsettling, bizarre (but not difficult) and eerily moving novel. Few books will immerse you in a peculiar environment so completely.

And back on the shelf you go.
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