By Tim Wynne-Jones (M&S; 1988)
Another novel for those who think they’ve heard it all, it being the story of a talking hole. Yes, a hole, or rather an oubliette, which not only serves as the story’s chief driving force but also narrates the thing.
It begins with a drunk happening upon the oubliette in a dark alley. Glad to have someone to chat with, the hole tells the drunk its story, which is actually the story of Alexis, a Toronto resident who travels by herself to England in a bid to escape a traumatic divorce. She finds herself inexorably drawn to the ruins of an age-old castle named Fastyngange, which houses the oubliette. Also lurking in the area are a score of ghosts, all of people who lost their lives, or at least their sanity, by falling down the hole. Among them is Alexis’ ex, who went mad upon seeing what lay at the bottom of the oubliette, meaning a part of him remains in the area as a disembodied spirit.
Alexis becomes determined to make her estranged husband whole again, but the only way she can do that is to bring the hole to him. This situation turns out ideal for both Alexis and the oubliette, as Fastyngange is scheduled for demolition.
Alexis imbibes the hole and carries it within her on a cruise ship bound for Canada. The ghosts, however, follow. Inhabiting many of the ship’s flesh and blood residents, the spirits make life on board difficult, and force Alexis into a most unexpected act to get rid of them.
Speaking of unexpected, the narrative takes an entirely different turn in the final third. Here Alexis returns to her hometown in Toronto, where we learn through a lengthy psychiatric session that the preceding may have all been a WHITE HOTEL-like hallucinogenic reverie based on Alexis’ sexual hang-ups (yes, the carnal connotations of a malevolent talking hole are noted and explored). It can’t be, though, because, again, the hole narrates the tale–and undergoes several more changes of venue before it’s done.
The Canadian Tim Wynne-Jones is a prolific children’s book author. FASTYNGANGE is apparently something of an anomaly in his oeuvre, as claimed by the author himself, who now says he can “hardly believe I had written” this “dark and gloomy adult novel.” The novel is indeed dark and gloomy, and quite adult in conception, but also strangely appealing. It’s an arresting feat of sustained weirdness that loses its footing at times (I question the wisdom of giving a peripheral figure from the early chapters a major part in the final ones, as by then I’d totally forgotten the character), but remains a compelling oddity, and a minor classic of dark imagination.