The first thing I’ll say about Edward Carey’s Heap House is this: it’s unique.
Now, ‘unique’ is a funny word; it has connotations. You can use ‘unique’ to mean ‘so far out there it can’t be seen with the Hubble Telescope’ or ‘a precious and perfect little gem, complete in itself’, or something between the two extremes. I’m still not sure where Heap House fits in the grand spread of All the Books in the World, but I have definitely never read anything like it before.
I’m not even sure how to synopsise it, but I’ll do my best.
In an alternative London in 1875, Heap House is the home of the Iremonger family, a long-established and (apparently) well-respected clan who have made their considerable fortune from the waste of the city. They scour through it for things, presumably to sell (though judging by the amount of stuff inside their home, you’d be forgiven for thinking they simply keep it all for themselves), and their house is made from reclaimed pieces of London itself, hammered and sawed and nailed together in a hodge-podge which somehow works, and holds together. My favourite character in this book – and there are many – is actually the house itself, which is why it pleases me that the book is named after it. The rooms, corridors, passageways, halls, chambers, thoroughfares, escutcheons, doors, locks, keys, walls, furnishings, crockery, fixtures, fittings, sconces and lintels of Heap House are all very much part of the story (and that sort of descriptive tic, the list, is very much in evidence throughout). The threat which hangs over the house is the most interesting part of the book, too. It comes near the end, which is a bit of a pity, but never mind.
Clod Iremonger is our ‘hero’, should I call him such a thing. He is a fifteen year old boy, still in short trousers at the start of the book, who has a good heart and a kind temperament. Like all Iremongers, Clod has a ‘birth object’, something which was given to him on the day of his birth and which he is supposed to keep with him at all times. Clod’s object is a bath plug. Its name is James Henry Hayward. His aunt Rosamud’s is a brass door handle, which Clod knows is called Alice Higgs, and so when it goes missing (a dreadful catastrophe), Clod is called upon to help in the search because of his great, and somewhat mistrusted, gift of being able to hear the birth objects’ voices.
Not all Iremongers can hear these voices, but Clod is one such. Each object is more than just a ‘thing’ to him; they all have names, which they repeat over and over. Clod has always wondered why each object has a name, though he has never thought to question it until one day, in the midst of the search for Aunt Rosamud’s door handle, he sits on a red sofa and it not only tells him its name, but it asks him a question. ‘Where’s Margaret?’ it says, and Clod – understandably – is left shaken. Something strange is starting to happen to the objects of Heap House; something is disturbing them. But what? And why?
The other main narrator of the book is a strong-willed, stubborn, rather morally dubious young woman by the name of Lucy Pennant. She is slightly older than Clod, plucked from her orphanage to come and live and work at Heap House because somewhere in her lineage there was an Iremonger. She is given a bed, a uniform, and a set of tasks when she takes up her employment and, as well as that, her name is taken from her – she is told she will be known, henceforward, simply as ‘Iremonger’. Lucy Pennant makes huge efforts, however, to hold onto her name, reminding herself of it and repeating it at every opportunity. She is also given a ‘birth object’, a sealed box of matches, but is not allowed to keep it on her person. Only the ‘Upiremongers’, or the family, are permitted to keep theirs with them.
As Clod struggles to cope with growing up (he is soon to be ‘trousered’, or presented with long pants and a wife in the shape of his obnoxious cousin Pinalippy), and the troubling noises being made by the objects all around him, as well as the bullying attention of his horrendous cousin Moorcus, Lucy struggles to figure out Heap House, its inhabitants, and their distinctly odd way of life. Couple this with the fact that the heaps (the mounds of rubbish all around the house) are stirring, a Gathering is coming (whatever that is), and something terrifying is beginning to happen to the objects – and the people – of Heap House.
Well, if that synopsis didn’t leave you boggle-eyed, you may be able to handle reading the book itself. It’s a strange creature, a book full of complicated syntax, several swear words, rather a lot of talk of marriage, lists upon lists of description, pages of dialogue (which are often very funny), a cast of thousands where not only the people but also every single thing has a name, and a strange, slow, meandering and distinctly action-free (until the end) plot. In short, it breaks pretty much all the ‘rules’ which are supposed to apply to children’s books, which leaves it in a strange place: to me, it’s like a piece of fantastical literature written for grown-ups, which happens to be peopled largely by a cast of children. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed this book as a kid, and I was a voracious, wide and adventurous reader. In short, it’s a weird book. It’s imaginative, it’s definitely in a class of its own, it has great characters, each of which have fantastically distinct voices, and I really enjoyed the concept behind it. I particularly adore the questions it asks about humanity, identity, what happens when people begin to be treated as objects, and the sheer wastefulness of the average human life, wherein we accumulate more things than we will ever need, but I have to say that it’s slow, and it meanders, and it’s stuffed full of description (not all of which is necessary), and it’s confusing in places. I also spotted a few copy-editing errors, including referring to an object as ‘Gloria Emma Smart’ the first time it appears, and ‘Gloria Emma Utting’ thereafter, which annoyed me. At times I did struggle to continue reading, after a wonderfully gripping opening, but it was worth it for the end (which is great).
I’m not sure I’ll be back for the sequels – I think one book about the Iremonger clan is quite enough for me. But it’s a quirky, different and brave piece of literature, and I respect and admire it for that. I just don’t love it, and that’s a pity, but there you have it.