BOOK REVIEW / Trudy Truth, Fry's funny: The hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, Hutchinson pounds 14.99

'WE LIVE in arse-paralysingly drear times,' declares Stephen Fry's anti-hero, the washed-up poet and recently sacked theatre critic Ted Wallace. He lounges lecherous and well-oiled round the Harpo Club in Soho (a lovingly embellished pastiche) until one day he accidentally picks up his own god-daughter, Jane. She puts to him an absurdly implausible and lucrative proposal which propels him off to P G Wodehouseland for a protracted country house stay and the

solving of a mystery.

Ted's mission at Swaffard Hall is to investigate the apparently miraculous healing powers of his other god-child, Davey. Jane is convinced that Davey has cured her of leukaemia. He is the 15- year-old son of Ted's gallingly successful old friend Michael, a man who 'gives off power, great radio beams of pure sodding charisma'. Michael's father, we learn in a judicious digression from Ted's tireless wittering, was a Czech Jew who came to England out of a liking for tweed and formality, and who was also reputed to have a gift for healing.

There are weighty issues here: anti-Semitism; our hungry but somewhat fearful need to believe in powers like Davey's. There are matters of parenthood and growing up which are handled with real delicacy. But Fry got carried away with the epistolary device he has chosen to use. It is just within reason that the wordy Ted actually writes Jane these huge letters which contain verbatim dinner-table dialogue and take up a third of the book. But Jane's replies start to sound awfully like Ted's letters, and so does the correspondence of a houseguest called Patricia whom Ted badly wants to bed. They can't all be windbags. And I drew the line at the diaries of defrocked priest Oliver Mills (or 'Mother Mills') - a sort of Ted in linguistic drag who contrives alliterative girly names for all his nouns: 'Trudy Truth, Amanda Amazement, Sandra Sleep, Daisy Diary'. This almost immediately becomes unbearable.

Meanwhile, most of the houseguests convince themselves that Davey has the power. Only on an individual basis do they discover that he is currently administering his cures through holy sexual acts, which is fine by the old queen Oliver but disastrous in the case of a visiting buck-toothed virgin called Clara and revolting in the case of the sick horse Lilac. Chaos follows mayhem until, Poirot-like, Ted pulls out a red herring solution to the strange goings-on, and effects a secular redemption of sorts for himself and Davey.

Stephen Fry doesn't trust his readers not to slack off unless he keeps them toned up with strenuous wordplay and a kind of rhetorical ice- dancing. He marshals words that, if said aloud, provide maximum labio-dental exercise. Of course, one can hear Fry's own sonorous smooth- talking throughout, just as Clive James's nasal tones are audible in his novels. But here, in contrast to the Jamesian alliterations and hyperbole, we get unbridled mellifluousness, fey tweaks and grandiloquent oaths.

The book may be flawed, but it's funny. Readers need a bit of verbosity and fussing over. They will be pampered by such extras as Ted's tips for putting on clothes when damp from the bath so that shirt and socks will not 'frot and rub frictively', so that 'sir's shirtings and half- hosements will practically leap from the floor and wrap themselves around him in a gladsome twinkling'. There are worse antidotes to drear times.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy