The Confession of Hilary Durwood

Euron Griffith
Publication Date: 
Monday, March 13, 2023
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Eager for glory as an explorer in the further reaches of the Empire Hilary Durwood is duped into undertaking a semi-mythical mission, in semi-mythical lands. After many adventures and setbacks he returns to Victorian London destitute, dismayed at having killed someone, and seeking revenge against the Gentleman Explorer who set him up. Meanwhile a serial killer, The Slasher, stalks the streets and inevitably their paths will cross….

Hilary has survived dangerous islanders who are intent on eating human flesh, a huge cat with a wooden leg, a giant centipede, and a man who is determined to taste every animal on the planet. He has been fed by birds bringing hallucinogenic berries and held up the crumbling Tower of Ectha. And now Hilary must write his final confession.

This dark comedy thriller is a page-turning and riotous engagement with the notions and myths of Empire, the nature of reality, the power of narrative and the gullibility of those who wish to believe, even in the face of the truth.


Review by Sheenagh Pugh, LIVEJOURNAL

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Our eponymous narrator (male, by the way) is adrift in a small boat off Singapore in a rough sea:

“One petulant and mighty gust was enough to dislodge the cage of the hapless macaw and send him hurtling into an oncoming wave. The same gust which erased this ill-starred animal from all earthly records was kinder to the giant centipede for that individual’s basket was merely tipped onto its side therefore allowing the slinky beast to pour himself onto my lap. I had never before been host to such a gargantuan insect and the peculiarity of the situation was not lost on the giant centipede either because he immediately sought a more secluded sanctuary within my breeches. As the spindly limbs of the fiend felt their way along the naked flesh of my inner thigh I followed the course of the moving bulge with trepidation for I had heard Mr Eustace Skate recounting on many occasions how a single bite from this scoundrel could reduce a man to pitiful paroxysms of agony. Intent on evicting the noxious arthropod I once more rose to my feet and – struggling to maintain my balance – I undid the buttons of my breeches and unpeeled them as delicately as was possible over my boots. I gathered the breeches in my arms and sacrificed them to the insolent snatch of the gale. They kicked and flapped their empty legs in protest but were swiftly sucked into the bottomless pit of the ocean. Any discomfort I may have felt at my indecorous state was tempered by the knowledge that I had at least exorcised the giant centipede.
 But, upon sitting down again, I discovered that the cunning beast had not, after all, been consigned to the murky depths of the sea but had, instead, curled itself around my groin like a chain and was now tightening its grip by the second! He appeared to find my groin a rather agreeable spot to rest for, although both strands of his antennae would occasionally wave eerily to taste the salt air, the main body of the segmented monster resisted the urge to scuttle off into some caliginous region of the boat and he merely contracted his anatomy even further to consolidate his occupancy.”

Clearly our narrator is from an earlier century (the nineteenth in fact) and the Victorian idiom is nearly always convincing, though lemon drizzle cake looked dubious for the period, and indeed the internet assures me it was invented in 1967. He has a prim, scholarly way of expressing himself, even in extremis, that promises much humour, unintended on his part but very much intended on the author’s. Indeed Durwood sometimes approaches Pooter in his intense consciousness of his own dignity and supreme unconsciousness of the ridiculous:

“Bowing graciously I turned on my heels and walked away in the direction of the forest. I proceeded with as much dignity as I could muster. I continued to do so even after the dead crab had struck me forcefully on the back of the head.”

He is also very naïve; the reader will be well ahead of him in surmising why the friendly villagers who rescue him are so concerned for his nourishment, and at several other points in the novel.

As for the macaw and the centipede, they are only the first in a remarkable series of animal characters we shall meet, including Mr Delphus of Clare, the lion, and Maximilian the Second, the porcupine. Whether this zoological aspect is an intentional reference to Life of Pi I don’t know, but it is handled a lot more entertainingly here.

It will also be clear that the novel, or at least this part of it, is a picaresque, with a strong element of what I hesitate to call fantasy, since no elves or goblins are involved, rather a certain zaniness and a deadpan acceptance of what is not physically possible, let alone plausible. In the first half of the novel, the humour lies in incongruity and preposterousness, like the amazing presence of mind shown by a man carried aloft by an albatross:

“Mamar had the ingenuity to take advantage of his situation by reaching for a piece of charcoal from his pocket and drawing a relatively detailed outline of the harbour and coastline. Forever ingenious and practical, the little fellow tied it up with some ribbon, weighed it down with a coin and dropped it. Fortuitously, it happened to land directly into the hand of Admiral Stuart Kelsey who was about to take command of his frigate HMS Solent. This map proved to be the basis for all further studies of that treacherous piece of coast and was invaluable in the war against France.”

In the second half, back in London, the humour becomes considerably more satirical. I shall long remember Mr Colebridge the editor and his zeal to improve the public:

“There’s a whole new world out there Hilary! A world of opportunities for men with vision and ideas. Literacy! It’s a most wonderful gift and now, thanks to our advances in education, we have an enormous amount of literate and modestly prosperous people out there desperate for something to transport them out of the dullness of their everyday drudgery. Why, even the neediest of the London poor are now able to at least read a page of an average newspaper if it’s presented to them simply and clearly.”
He came back to the desk, sat down heavily and lowered his voice. It trembled with excitement.
 “Murder, rape, burglary, kidnapping! That is what this new readership wants and craves and, by God sir, that is what I aim to give them in the pages of The Extraordinary London Gazette!”

 In this half too, the novel’s main theme (at least as I see it) becomes clearer; it is very much about guilt and justice. Early on, Durwood’s momentary pity for the centipede results in a nasty bite (no good deed goes unpunished), and throughout the novel people who have been ill-used themselves ill-use others, “perpetuating this cycle of cruelty and self-preservation”. Durwood at one point has a key revelation: “I arrived at the inevitable – and it must be conceded – astoundingly unoriginal conclusion that the world was not fair and that the evil, deceptive actions of unscrupulous individuals were not always punished. Looking up at the night sky and at the stars which glinted coldly out of the blackness I wondered if there was, in fact, a benevolent God, framed, naturally, in the shape of a fair-minded English gentleman, looking down upon his creation and ensuring that a fundamental sense of justice would always prevail, or if the sky merely stretched away into chaos and anarchy – a smattering of whirling rocks and stones untroubled by morality, ethics or law.”  

The other truth that becomes evident to Durwood is how alienated different classes in society are from each other, and how little they know about each other. Though in this conversation he disagrees with his colleague, he comes to see that Harry Bunch is right. If this review is longer than most, it’s because I have quoted a lot, and who wouldn’t when the language is so crisp and memorable?

“We live in enlightened times Mr Bunch. The doors of our great institutions are open to all who have the requisite gifts, regardless of class or financial considerations.”
 “Spoken like a true gentleman if I may say so,” said Harry Bunch. “Because only a true gentleman could believe for a minute that any of that was true.”

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