Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, book review: A strange and beautiful world

Patrick deWitt's blend of fantasy and gothic romance is a delicious treat
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The Independent Culture

Patrick DeWitt's third novel proves that thinking you know what kind of fiction you like and sticking to it is a mistake. Set within the decrepit Castle Von Aux and the strange nearby village, this fairy tale about Lucien "Lucy" Minor is populated by barons, thieves, soldiers, wily butchers and beautiful women. The region is unspecified but it feels like Central Europe and, although the period could be medieval, Lucy travels to the castle by train. deWitt demonstrated with The Sisters Brothers (2011) – his Man Booker Prize short-listed western – that he can subvert genres but, with its blend of fantasy and gothic romance, Undermajordomo Minor sounded unlikely to enchant a literalist like me.

How wrong I was. From its pitch-perfect opening onwards, it's clear from the unusual atmosphere and droll narration that deWitt has created a unique fictional universe. At the outset, 17-year-old Lucy is preparing to leave home to work "undermajordomo" – a lowly servant's role invented by the castle's major-domo, Mr Olderglough. Whether you flew the nest long ago or are preparing to leave for university this autumn, you'll identify with Lucy's bewilderment.

Before departing, Lucy visits his ex-girlfriend and falsely alleges that her new boyfriend is engaged to another woman. A lie, Lucy thinks, is "man's finest achievement", but he's quickly exposed and humiliated. In the village near the Castle Von Aux, where deception is widespread, Lucy befriends Memel the thief, gains a puppy and falls in love with Klara. When the puppy licks Lucy's fingertip, it "prompted a flutter in his stomach"; when Lucy meets Klara's eyes, "there was in him an actual reverberation". deWitt conveys Lucy's yearning for intimacy so palpably that the reader feels these flutters and reverberations.

The "colossal and ominous" castle contains mysteries. What happened to Lucy's predecessor? Why does Baron Von Aux only come out at night to eat vermin and write pleading letters to his estranged wife? What are the armies in the surrounding forests fighting for? Can Olderglough be trusted? Life at the castle grows sordid, with sadomasochistic sex, violence and debauchery. Meanwhile, Lucy and Klara's romance blossoms, until her soldier ex-boyfriend confronts Lucy, with disastrous consequences.

Occasionally, deWitt overdoes Lucy and Olderglough's curious repartee, but the majordomo's contention that "laughter is the basest sound a body can make" seems significant. This novel is funny but it won't necessarily make you laugh out loud. Instead, suppressed mirth ripples through deWitt's prose.

Some themes are explicit: "Love is the culprit, and love grows wherever it wishes." Some scenes trigger reveries about home, love, heartbreak, alienation and mortality.

Lucy's singular tale reminds us that we're all at once uncomfortable outsiders and unapologetic individuals. deWitt avoids the pitfalls of artistic strangeness (get it wrong and few things are more jarring), telling the story in short chapters which allows its oddity space to breathe. The challenge for the reader is to resist the temptation to devour a novel which should be savoured.

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