The name Frank Baker will doubtless ring a bell - it is he who penned one of my all-time faves, Miss Hargreaves, and I keep persevering with his work, in the hope that I find something else as wonderful. (Miss H, as I blogged recently, even pops up her head in Mr. Allenby Loses The Way.) But genius seems only to have wandered by once, and the other Baker books I've read are rather more pedestrian. Actually that's probably not the right term for Mr. Allenby Loses The Way because, in fact, it baffled me utterly in its strangeness.
Sergius Allenby is a diffident newsagent who lives fairly contentedly with his wife and niece. He's not unlike Norman, from Miss Hargreaves, in being an unassuming but imaginative man. The family dynamics aren't as amusing as the Huntley family's, but it all seems fairly normal (albeit amidst the air raid sirens and rationings of the time) until a gentlemen turns up wanting to talk to Mr. Allenby.
It turns out that the gentlemen is not, in fact, a gentlemen - but a fairy usurping the body of one. Sergius is asked whether or not he believes in fairies, and somewhat nervously conceded that he always has done - based on the mysterious and imprecise events surrounding his own birth, abandonment by his mother, and subsequent adoption. This confession is all that is needed for the fairy-man to grant Sergius five wishes - a transaction done with a businesslike demeanour unbefitting a fairy.There was something remarkable about him, thought Sergius, yet he could not easily have described him except to say he was tall, lean-figured, dressed in good but unmemorable dark clothes, with graceful, cat-like movements of the arms. His dim eyes, blurred by heavy horn spectacles, stared down at his brilliantly polished black shoes as though within those orbs stirred some oracle who guided him. He was like a shadow, without substance or personality. When he opened his mouth to speak Sergius expected some extraordinary remark to issue from him. “There is a basilisk sitting on your right shoulder.” But he only said, in a persuasive and delicate voice, “You are Mr. Allenby, I believe?”
And it is after this that the novel becomes strange.Sergius sat, drumming his fingers on the table-cloth and staring dreamily into space. The strange referred again to his note-book. "Hm. Yes," he murmured, "Sergius Allenby. To be allowed five wishes with the usual reservations. Period, one month. Casual wishes not operative. No other person to assist. Allow me to congratulate you, Mr. Allenby. I might tell you, in confidence, that you are the only person in this area to be granted five wishes.""It does seem a lot." Sergius coughed apologetically. "It always used to be three in the old tales.""Frankly, there's not much one can do with three; and first wishes are invariably wasted."
I imagine quite a lot of you would have stopped listening when I used the word 'fairy'. I've got to admit, I wasn't thrilled at the prospect myself. Even with my love of slightly strange novels, which dabble in the fantastic (like a certain Miss Hargreaves, don't know if you've heard of it) I shudder at the thought of fairies and suchlike appearing in a novel.
Well, you're in luck. Turns out he might not be a fairy after all. Humphrey Nanson occupies the other narrative thread - he is a strange sort of psychologist, who muses a lot on the nature of morality, works in an underground room filled with erotica and children's books, and seems to be able to possess people. Told you it became strange. But he also enjoys toying with other people's lives, and wielding power over them.
“There is the simple expedient of the telephone directory. Don’t you adore the pin of fate? As for the joke – I would aim merely at the baffling and bewildering of the chosen victim. For example, Harold Finching, warehouse clerk, receives, every Tuesday morning, through the post, a parcel of boiled cod and bootlaces. Miss Pennyprim, of Mon Abri, discovers, every Sunday morning, a pair of bright scarlet bloomers hanging from her line. Mr. Allenby, newsagent, is visited by a business-like fairy and told he may have five wishes.”Curiouser and curiouser. Even curiouserer is that Mr. Allenby's wishes seem to be coming true...
There are some fantastic ideas in this novel. My favourite conceit within it (which is more or less incidental to the plot) is that of an artist so absorbed in painting the sea scene in front of him that it is not until the picture is completed that he realises he has included a woman drowning herself... as indeed she has. But good ideas do not a novel make. Where Miss Hargreaves was insouciant and joyful with an undercurrent of the sinister, Mr. Allenby Loses The Way rather loses the joy. Instead we have a lot of meanderings about philosophy and morality and psychology which do little other than baffle and skip round in circles. In the meantime, the plot arcs and interweavings don't seem to make much sense or maintain much continuity.
Perhaps most importantly, there is no character with the life of Miss Hargreaves. She is a true one-off, a brilliant invention; I could read her dialogue with delight for months. There is a vitality in her which spreads through her novel. Mr. Allenby Loses The Way has no such character; everything is slightly leaden. The writing is not bad, in and of itself, but neither is it sprightly. The odd amusing turn of phrase reminds me of Baker at his peak, but only for a moment or two.
After I read Miss Hargreaves I had hoped I had been introduced to a wonderful writer, and could spend many happy years tracking down and loving his novels. Instead, I am left rather desolate that Miss Hargreaves was the one bright light amidst mediocrity. But I'll keep trying his books. If any of them are half as wonderful as Miss Hargreaves, it'll have been worth the search.
Have you had that experience with any author - one brilliant book, but only one? If so, let me know...