Observatory Mansions: worth your observation
Jake Mohlman
7/14/2002 2:46:46 PM

Observatory Mansions [Crown] is an excellent first novel by Edward Carey, that explores some of the most fundamental issues a person can deal with. At the center of the novel, the reader finds Francis Orme, the narrator, and resident of 'Observatory Mansions', which is the subdivided remains of his ancestral home. Alongside Francis live characters that are so bizarre that one would consider them cartoonish if it wasn't for their heartbreaking psychoses. To reveal their mental disturbances, both collective and individual, would give away much of the plot, but it is sufficient to say that the element that holds them together is the "self-institutionalization" that they have inflicted on themselves and each other.

On the surface, Francis is the most outwardly normal of the cast of characters, although this isn't saying much. He wears gloves as a literal representation of the mental barriers he has placed between himself and the world. He collects what is in essence garbage, because he sees it as having been loved, and therefore uses it as a proxy for real love. However, his carefully constructed world, and those of his apartment-mates, come crumbling down with the arrival of a more spiritually rooted resident.

I think this is where a lot of the other reviewers have a complaint with this novel. I have yet to see a critique of the authors prose, which is reminiscent of Saramago's All the Names, and I have seen no argument with his characterizations, which are superb. Rather, I think readers are disturbed because this book is about the power of the human spirit, and its ability to mend itself. Not all of the characters ride off into the sunset, but they don't all wither and die either. It is in this range of outcomes that Carey most effectively considers his core subject. The negative reviews of the ending I have seen put me in mind of the reaction one gets to the 21st chapter of A Clockwork Orange in which Alex is starting to weary of his brutal life. To paraphrase Burgess, what is the point in examining the human condition if it always ends in misery? That's not life.

Observatory Mansions although a caricature, is life. It is sad and bizarre, but it is also hopeful and uplifting, and that's life. Carey has written an excellent novel, and I expect further greatness from him in the future.


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