The first book in the Gormenghast series introduces us to a strange world peopled with eccentric and curious characters. Gormenghast castle itself is sprawling, all consuming, and with an air of neglect about it. Many of the characters are reclusive and there seems something of a dusty, forgotten feel to the lives there. The 76th Earl of Gormenghast, Lord Sepulchrave, spends his days carrying out antiquated rituals, the meaning behind many of which seems to have passed out of living memory. The book opens with two events that will prove catalysts for more dramatic occurrences – the birth of an heir, the eponymous Titus Groan, who makes few appearances, and the arrival of a new kitchen boy, Steerpike.
The birth of a younger brother displeases Fuschia Groan, the spoilt first child of Sepulchrave, who is nonetheless never allowed to forget her inferior position due to her sex. For Nannie Slagg however, this is a wonderful opportunity to feel increasingly self-important with a new little charge to nurture. Although Titus opens and closes the book, and whose story will undoubtedly become more of a central focus in the later books, it is Steerpike’s actions who shape this novel.
He is charming and manipulative and engineers his rise through underhand methods. He takes advantage of Sepulchrave’s twin sisters, Cora and Clarice, who are generally excluded from activities in the castle. This solitutde is the perfect environment for their resentment toward their sister-in-law Gertrude to fester. The power hungry twins have suffered ill health, and appear to have low intelligence, having a childish strain to their behaviour, yet maintaining an eerie lack of expression for the most part. They are intriguing figures who don’t seem to think highly of each other. Steerpike convinces them to commit arson and then proceeds to terrorise them to ensure their silence, allowing the reader to feel a tug of sympathy for the neglected pair.
A strange and meticulously imagined novel. I have heard it said that not much happens in it, and although it may not be action packed it focuses instead on building depth into its world and characters with enough dramatic events to keep the story moving. It certainly leaves you eager to dive into the next instalment.