Digging up Donald
by Steven Pirie
Reviewed by Steve Redwood
(A revolutionary review of a humorous fantasy novel WITH NO REFERENCE TO MR TP!)
The Reverend Herbert Likewise in the village of Mudcaster has been possessed by a big demon, and, aided by his much–abused curate, Mr Dodds (a wannabe big demon), is planning the destruction/domination of ... well, just about everything, including Time itself.
It's the job of the Richards family to do Something About It. And the first thing to do is to Dig up Donald (yet again). Because inside Donald is The Book of Family Business, which will have the names of the new Chosen to fight against the coming Evil. While waiting, it's necessary to find all the Ancestors, to help fight the Reverend. As Ancestors tend to be dead, this means digging up much more than Donald--and, in addition, visits to Hell, to Death's Door, to the Parting Breath pub with its strict dress code (no flesh allowed), and even to time past--where Great Uncle Silas once came across a rather important silver fish that has been in Mr Fipps' bath for forty years...
Digging up Donald is a delightfully original humorous fantasy with a wildly complicated--but wonderfully woven--plot, marvellous characters, humour both subtle and LOL, and underneath it all a feeling almost of nostalgia for a kind of life now past.
The main viewpoint character is fifteen(almost)-year-old Robert, who has to go on some strange travels to help save the world, and it is through him we get to see some of the wonderfully weird people and places Pirie has invented. The reaction of Robert's hormones to Joan, the Reverend's daughter, is one of the quieter threads of the novel. It doesn't have the passion or force of the Will-Lyra romance in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, but it is nonetheless a warm and convincing story.
But the two strongest characters are the Mother and the Grandmother.
The Mother is a formidable woman who can wipe the smile off faces even in photographs with a single glance. She would make 'people wait, when they knocked unannounced', as this 'gave them time to consider the consequences of her opening the door. Just in case their knocking wasn't quite warranted, and they might want to think better of it.' She has very strict ideas on things such as sex--Brian was forced to marry her daughter because he had looked at a photo of her; and she is most unhappy to find Aunt Maude's ashes living in sin in an urn with Mr Gilbert's, and severely warns, on pain of hoovering, against any hanky-panky. When her knitting needles begin to steam, then we know the Mother is upset.
The Grandmother, 'a crinkled vision...her brow ridged as sand that had once known a tide', and with eyelids that 'hung down like limp afterthoughts', lives in a rusted bath chair on the brow of the hill, prepared to hold it against all the forces of Hell (as well as any Council workmen trying to plant a tree on it). When not fighting the dark forces, she watches Inspector Morse on a TV plugged into a stone, and washes her underwear in the town well, drying it on the somewhat unusual sundial--which is always slow (the fault, it had been scientifically established, of the sun, not the sundial). She is if anything even tougher than the Mother: when Robert says she'll die of hypothermia on the brow of the hill, her answer is that “Hypothermia wouldn't dare.” And we are to learn that indeed it wouldn't. She is so old that there are pictures of her 'holding the brow' of the hill even in medieval tapestries--and the real Donald, hanging out in a pub in the underworld, is even older.
Then there's a whole host of sparkling minor characters, usually based, as in Dickens, on some exaggerated traits. The Father, much cleverer than he appears, only wishing to find time to read The Herald or potter in his shed; the Reverend Likewise and Mr Dodds, the bullying boss and the mistreated servant who will have his revenge--there are some very funny set pieces between them in the church; as there are between Maureen and a terrified Brian, deprived of darts or golf or sleep until he performs (Maureen's babies having been stolen in her dreams); Mrs Fish, Robert's teacher, already 'a trainee old woman', writing her university thesis on underwear (as a subject, not in lieu of paper); Mr Onion the history teacher and owner of a public museum never opened to the public; Constable Bates, willing to arrest even the dead (I was reminded of Moorcock's Inspector Springer and his 12 constables in Dancers at the End of Time); Aunt Maude, shacked up in her urn with someone else's ashes; Mr Cripps saving on the gas bills in the crematorium, so much so that one person 'emerged from the ovens only slightly browned'; the stupendous Cousin Hilderbrand who is 'not talked of', because he had once won a bicycle race by murdering the other 26 competitors, and who is now only a brain, but such a violent one that you don't go near it without a cricket bat; Barry, the Angel of Hell who dresses up as a pirate on Sundays to host karaoke; mad Mr Fipps, who keeps his good eye in his pocket...
Good ideas and wild imagination in themselves do not necessarily a great book make. It is the tone that makes this book genuinely special. The writer is careful to put his disclaimer on the book flap: 'No demons were harmed in its writing'. The book is informed with a fresh and gentle (well, when brains aren't being sucked out) humour. And often with genuine feeling, as in the treatment of the Reverend's wife, who offers herself as victim to try to save her daughter.
There is, too, a sense of nostalgia. The houses of the villagers are always seen in relation to the number of doors down or up from Mrs Lump's the greengrocer. The novel seems set in an earlier age, when policemen were bobbies (Mr Fipps tell Robert of 'a time when, if a policeman shouted 'stop, thief!', the thief actually did') and it was done only at night with the lights off. In between fighting demons and worse, the Father plays his Val Doonican records, and a cup of tea soothes many a troubled soul. The peculiarly prosaic lifestyle of these demon-fighters is part of their charm. Even though the Mother suspects Armageddon is due, she will do nothing but washing on washing day. And Pirie pays unobtrusive attention to always lovingly setting the scene, spring days that we seem to remember as belonging to the past, night skies with no smoke to obscure the stars.
Despite all the jokes and weird characters and doings, the book is very carefully structured. Things that will later be very important are quietly slipped in, as in the best detective novels. Duncarin the old ruined mansion, symbolically at the other end of the lane from the Vicarage; the five-sided Town Hall clock which will reset dimensions; a sundial with runes instead of numbers; the Roaming Stone whose grooves contain more than dust; a church font that is really a petrified or marbleized noble demon.
Come on, come on, there must be a couple of faults, surely? Well...
Almost inevitably, not all the gags work. There are, for example, various gratuitous swipes at Christianity (which may well need swiping) but the jokes here are below the level of the overall humour and aren't really intrinsic to the novel. Then although most of the running gags are superbly successful, occasionally they are overdone, as with Constable Bates and his notebook and pencil, or having every character, demon or otherwise, end up with a cup of tea. The Grandmother facing down the softer demons near the end is too much like Monty Python not at its best. But these lapses are very infrequent: the humour is usually gentle, off-kilter, warm, sometimes make-your-false-teeth-pop-out-splutteringly funny, sometimes subtle--and more often than not simply delicious.
I do have a small problem with the denouement, and not simply because of the spelling. The last forty pages or so seem too rushed, given the pace of what has gone before. And I don't really understand, despite the explanation given, how the Reverend's plan to stop anyone hearing the chimes of the five-sided clock is going to give him eternal domination. The Mother arrives on the brow with Donald and all the ancestors that Robert has spent the whole book digging up--but--apart from Donald it/herself and Hilderbrand's psychotic lobes--they play no part in the unfolding of events.
Otherwise, not simply one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year, but one of the most enjoyable books I've read for many years. The style is a delight, catching the euphemisms and prejudices of the characters perfectly. The plot moves along with a fine momentum, and (something difficult with humour) the novel is a real page-turner. We meet memorable character after memorable character.
Finally, a confession: when I read that Storm Constantine was starting a press to republish some of her earlier work and to publish new authors, I cynically suspected the 'new authors' bit was simply an add-on to attract people into buying her own work. Well, if this book is anything to go on, she has fulfilled her promise. The book is very well produced, good-quality print, uncluttered pages, a pleasure to hold as well as to read. A few quid more than a mass market paperback, but immeasurably superior.
I sincerely believe that only a person without any sense of humour or delight in language and imagination could fail to thoroughly enjoy this book. Even demons have no great cause to take offence.
Digging up Donald by Steven Pirie, Immanion Press, £17.99, hardback.
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