77. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (1946)

I first came across Mervyn Peake through his amazing illustrations to The Hunting of the Snark, and I tried to read the Gormenghast novels without much success in my teens. I came back to them again in my 30s, and loved this, the first one, liked the second one, Gormenghast, and couldn’t make head or tail of the third, Titus Alone. Titus Groan pushes the boundaries of what I find palatable in fiction – it’s way too close to fantasy for comfort. But behind the whimsical make-believe there’s a razor-sharp comic intelligence at work, and a good solid plot about the despised outsider, Steerpike, who schemes his way into the heart of the ruling Groan family. As a feat of the imagination, Titus Groan has few parallels: Peake wrote about this world as if he’d really lived there. Sometimes there’s too much description at the expense of useful narrative, but when he gets the balance between fantasy and comic reality right, Titus Groan is unbeatable.

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