When we use the word “clever” to describe something, it’s rarely meant as a compliment. Rather, when we say “clever,” what we actually mean is “pretentious,” “cloying,” or “too smart for its own good.” That, or we admit its cleverness begrudgingly, as such an admission often comes at our own expense; we somehow got fooled, tricked, or outsmarted.
So when I tell you that H. G. Parry’s debut novel, The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep, is an exceedingly clever novel, I won’t blame you if you’re tempted to dismiss it out of hand — and even more so after I tell you that much of the novel’s storyline hinges on postmodern literary analysis.
But please bear with me, because The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep is clever in the best possible sense of the word.
Charley Sutherland may seem like your typical absent-minded, Dickens-obsessed English professor. However, his disheveled appearance belies a strange and remarkable ability: he can bring book characters to life. Not figuratively or metaphorically, but literally, be it the Cat in the Hat or Sherlock Holmes. Which has caused his family, and especially his older brother Rob, no small amount of stress over the years.
Rob wants nothing more than to live a normal life with his fiancée and burgeoning law career. But when he’s threatened by a living, breathing Uriah Heep straight out of David Copperfield, his entire reality is turned upside down and inside out. Soon enough, Rob’s fighting off the Hound of the Baskervilles, discussing literary analysis with Sherlock Holmes, and discovering a community hidden in the recesses of Wellington, New Zealand that’s populated by the likes of Dorian Gray, Heathcliff, Mr. Darcy (five of them, in fact), and even the White Witch herself.
Unfortunately, this community may not remain hidden for long: another individual with powers like Charley’s is intent on bringing about a new world, one that threatens everyone, be they real or fictional.
The crux of Parry’s delightful novel is that different readers can and will interpret the same book and its characters in different ways. When you read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Emily Brontë, your vision of Sherlock Holmes or Heathcliff — the details of their appearance, their personality and tics, etc. — may be very different than mine, and this regardless of what the text might actually say. It’s a concept that lies at the heart of postmodern literary analysis, and Parry takes that concept and has an absolute ball with it.
This might make The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep sound like a boring — and dare I say, pretentious — work written by a Ph.D for her fellow Ph.Ds and nobody else. But even if you’re not up on your latest literary theories, or reject postmodernism out-of-hand, there’s still much to appreciate and enjoy about the novel.
For starters, it’s just a really enjoyable read. Parry may have a Ph.D, but she’s not above poking fun at stuffy academia. This comes through in her descriptions of the various fictional characters come to life, be it the aforementioned five Mr. Darcys (including one whose interpretation was influenced by Colin Firth) or the plucky young girl detective who leads the hidden community (“Her voice was fierce and jaunty; that of the girl adventuress despised by critics and loved by children who should have been doing their math homework.”). The novel can feel like an inside joke for English majors, but such is Parry’s skill as a writer that you feel like you’re in on the joke, too — even if you don’t know your David Copperfield from your Great Expectations.
And then there’s her decision to use Rob as the book’s primary narrator. Chances are, his blend of confusion, exasperation, and terror at his brother’s latest meandering foray into literary analysis is fairly accurate to how the average reader might feel in similar circumstances. Consider this exchange between Rob, Charley, and Sherlock as they try to defend themselves from the demonic Hound of the Baskervilles:
“I’m so sorry to bother you,” Charley said. He had shut The Sherlock Holmes Novel Omnibus and scrambled back to his feet. “But the Baskerville hound is outside, and you dispatch it so well in the book…”
“How kind of you,” Holmes said, with a smile in his direction. He looked at the closed door, which was trembling under repeated blows, and tilted his head to one side as he considered. “But I’m afraid what won’t work in this case. That is no mere hound you have outside the door. You have the nightmare version, the version of legend, and I’m afraid it will be very much impervious to bullets. It was believed to be, after all, before I shot it.”
“But you can do something?” The panic was rising in Charley’s voice again. “Please, you have to. It’s your book.”
“I can’t do anything,” Holmes said. “I’m afraid you’ll have to handle this yourself.”
“How’s he supposed to do that?” I demanded. “There’s a — I don’t even know what that thing is outside the door!”
“You know what it is, Doctor,” Holmes said to my brother. He was perfectly grave now, and ignoring me completely. “A cross between a bloodhound and a mastiff, aided by a cunning preparation of phosphorus. And mortal — not supernatural. You simply need to read it back the way it should be.”
“But it’s not mine this time!” Charley protested. “I can’t put it back.”
“Perhaps not. But you can argue with its interpretation. You do it all the time — on paper, at conferences. Think of it as an academic dispute. And in this case, you may consider yourself justified by the text itself. You would correct a colleague or a student who tried to read the hound as a pure Gothic monster, would you not?”
“Of course. It’s an ordinary dog. You unmask it through deductive reasoning. The entire book is about the power of science and intellect to disprove fear and superstition. But…”
“Exactly,” Holmes said. “This… creature out there, whatever it is, is a misreading and an affront to the most basic Sherlock Holmes scholarship. Correct it. That, after all, is how I truly defeat the monstrous hound, is it not? Not merely by shooting it. By disproving its very existence.
Postmodern academics as magical superpowers?! I dig it.
This would probably be enough to make The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep a good novel, albeit one that felt like a formal genre exercise. But Rob and Charley’s relationship gives the novel its emotional heft, and in particular, Rob’s constantly shifting emotions concerning Charley: overprotectiveness of his naïve younger brother; guilt at how he’s treated Charley in the past; anger at Charley’s intrusions into his normal life; and awe at Charley’s intelligence and abilities. These feelings grow increasingly complicated as the novel progresses and certain disturbing truths concerning Charley’s life and abilities come to light.
Eagle-eyed readers will likely be able to see these twists and turns coming — I was able to suss out some of the mystery surrounding Charley fairly early on — but Parry’s goal isn’t to merely outsmart her readers. Furthermore, I suspect that some stuffy purists might take issue with how Parry plays with Dickens, Brontë, C. S. Lewis, and other classics. But Parry’s goal isn’t slavish adoration of dead authors and hoary old texts. (Besides, sometimes poking fun is the truest sign of respect and admiration.)
Rather, her goal is to celebrate the ability of books to spark wonder, come alive (even if only figuratively in our imagination), and speak truth into our lives — even books that were written in times and societies vastly different than our own. To celebrate that books, be they Gothic fiction or Victorian mysteries or children’s adventures, are more than just words on a page; they can open gateways to other worlds that, if we’re not careful, can leave us irrevocably changed.
That she often does so with a wink and a nod — if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman, then you’ll know what I’m talking about here — makes The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep all the more enjoyable.