While it is always a pleasure to read a new John Murray novel, it is not so easy to review one. The usual dutiful compression of plot ("Joanna is a middle-aged novelist whose marriage has run out of steam") and description of style ("The flatness of her prose is a deliberate attempt to...") goes out of the window. A Murray novel is more like a comic opera, full of splendid arias, farcical encounters between characters who can be fairly described as "larger than life", and the very serious business of human love.
The bare bones of The Legend of Liz and Joe are as follows. Joe Gladstone, aged 73, has inherited money and opened a guesthouse whose main features are superb vegetarian cooking and an original policy for guests. They are refused entry if insufficiently interesting and have to present an essay setting out their qualities. Not surprisingly, he is running out of money, and enters a competition offering a £50,000 prize for a story told in the Cumbrian dialect.
Joe enters a dystopian fable set in 2018, in an England whose nanny-state laws have reached lunatic proportions. Cumbria has been singled out for an especially mad project involving men's trousers. Instalments are given at intervals throughout the novel, which has many ingeniously rendered glosses in dialect. Throw in Joe's detailed recipes for Indian, South American and Greek banquets, disquisitions on linguistic oddities, arguments with his son Desmond about the arts, the special virtues of beloved dogs, gloomy ruminations about his wife's first adulterous affair (at the age of 70), a virtuosic rant against dementia and its treatment and a bunch of resurrected Vikings. Stir vigorously, and the result is an extremely funny and wickedly clever book.
It is a paradox that those novelists who are reckoned to give a fantastic view of human life present a truer picture than self-styled realists. To Murray, "the truly comic is all about deep breath, expansiveness, hugeness, a straining... towards that which is limitless". Take a deep breath and begin reading..........