Novelist Patrick deWitt hit the equivalent of a literary home run with his darkly comic, Western-inspired book, The Sisters Brothers when it came out in 2011. Only his second novel, The Sisters Brothers won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Roger’s Trust award, the Stephen Leacock award, and the Walter Scott prize. It was also nominated for the Man Booker and the Scotia Bank Giller prize.
It’s no surprise then, that only days after landing on store shelves, deWitt’s latest book Undermajordomo Minor, was on the long list for this year’s Giller, widely regarded as Canada’s top prize for fiction.
It’s a start, but how on earth is deWitt going to top the accolades given to The Sisters Brothers? I imagine it wasn’t a question that worried him too much — judging from his latest book’s bizarre title. Veering into an imaginary fairytale realm, deWitt certainly didn’t stick with a plot formula.
Still, it wasn’t easy for deWitt to create a new story. He had a false start, writing and then abandoning a story set on Wall Street. He found his groove after reading a collection of classic fairytales to his son.
In Undermajordomo Minor, a young man named Lucy Minor leaves his loveless home to seek his fortune as an under butler in a sprawling, shadowy and much neglected castle. It’s set in an unidentifiable time (probably somewhere around 1830) in an imaginary place, reminiscent of the Alps.
When Lucy begins his post, he quickly discovers the castle harbours many secrets, including the whereabouts of his master. DeWitt’s telling is bizarre – much like original, unadulterated fairytales. Events take sudden macabre turns, and flit into the realm of the truly weird.
In other words, Undermajordomo Minor is part love story, part adventure, and part black comedy – feeling much like what you’d get if Wes Anderson filmed a fairytale. At the castle, Lucy witnesses people do the most dastardly things to each other, and he is forced to do the same, and yet all the while, the characters remain remarkably polite.
The writing in Undermajordomo Minor suffers a little because it isn’t rooted in a real place and real time. But deWitt’s remarkable ear for ridiculous dialogue and comedic situations overcomes any unevenness.
Also long listed for this year’s Giller Prize is All Truth, Not a Lie in It, a debut novel by Kelowna author, Alix Hawley. Hawley’s tale is a reimagining of Daniel Boone’s life – told from his point of view. The short list for the Giller will come out on Oct.5th, with the prize being awarded on Tuesday, Nov.10th.