This extraordinary sequel to Titus Groan is a strange beast. It has a Hamlet aspect (i.e. almost all the main characters are killed in tragic ways) and is part coming-of-age story, part gothic romance and part satire.
Set several years after the previous book, Gormenghast focuses mainly on Titus, heir to the decaying castle, as he begins to rebel against his fate of dreary ritual. We meet him when he is 8 and he is 17 by the end of the novel. Meanwhile, the evil and ambitious Steerpike’s plans to murder his way to the top are going awry. There is also a bizarre love story, much lingered over but arguably pointless, between the grizzled headmaster Bellgrove and the irritating Irma Prunesquallor.
At just over 500 pages of detailed scene-setting and minutely-described eccentric characters, this volume is not an easy or quick read, but is magnificent and frustrating at the same time. As I noted in my review of Titus Groan, you can enjoy the story at face value or you can try to understand it on a deeper level, particularly in the context of the Second World War. Mervyn Peake’s ink sketches of the characters are a welcome inclusion in the book but I wish there were more of them.
First published in 1950. My edition was published by Mandarin, 1989.