Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

After a brush with death, the wistful young misfit Lucien Minor decides to embark on a new life, leaving his idyllic dead-end village to take up a post assisting the majordomo of a remote castle belonging to the mysterious Baron Von Aux. At once a coward and a compulsive liar, Lucy finds himself (through his own doing as much as fate) entangled with honourable thieves, partisan soldiers fighting a mysterious war, and the beautiful Klara. Then there is the mystery of the elusive Baron, the estranged Baroness, the demise of Lucy’s predecessor, and the general air of unease that pervades every corner of the castle and threatens the sanity of its occupants.

Undermajordomo Minor is not a novel of grand themes, or serious questions of the human condition – though nuggets of wisdom abound. It is a story told for the pleasure of storytelling, as much a surreal fairytale as a twisted comedy of manners. Dialogue is punchy and witty, almost Wildean in its playfulness. Lucy’s progress is narrated in short, sharp episodes, with small interstitial signposts – in some ways the reading experience is a little like the progression of a role-playing game, with characters moving quickly from scene to scene.

At times deWitt’s lightness of touch and quirky turn of phrase can verge on twee, but these moments are kept in check by darker, more grotesque elements (not least a pivotal scene in the castle’s ballroom that is as blackly comic as it is depraved) and a shade of melancholy that holds the story back from out-and-out absurdity.

DeWitt’s style can take some warming up to, but fans of the Canadian author’s previous book The Sisters Brothers will feel at home straight away. Even for the uninitiated, Undermajordomo Minor is a lively and immensely pleasurable read.

Alan Vaarwerk is the editorial assistant for Readings Monthly.