Monday, 1 June 2009

Mr Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I would like to apply the adjective ‘delightful’ to this book, but its meaning has become somewhat watered down over the years. Yet it really does apply, for the book is highly pleasing and it is charming. It is a great deal more, of course, but that will do for a start.

Timothy Fortune, after many years in a bank is released from servitude by a bequest. He trains and is ordained as a minister, undertaking missionary work in the Pacific. At his request (a whimsical fancy, hence ‘maggot’) he is sent to an extremely isolated island. As an earnest and hopelessly naïve Christian (not to mention one encumbered by all the baggage of a cultural superiority complex), he is immediately out of his depth.

The island is paradise. No one goes hungry. There is no violence. Discord rarely occurs and disputes are quickly settled. Fortune flounders. He does not know how to cope. His one convert, a young boy called Lueli, turns out to be no such thing. When the long dormant volcano on the island erupts Fortune and Lueli both have their faith put to the test and must work through to an accommodation.

A novel like this could have been deeply intense and highly pretentious. It could have been about a clash of cultures (as in Pratchett’s Nation – which has a similar setting and explores similar themes) and full of the kind of symbolism that strips characters of any reality. Instead, Warner has used a light touch with an undercurrent of dry humour to make the story a very personal one. That it has universal overtones is inevitable, simply because Fortune and Lueli and such wonderfully drawn and believable characters.

Written in Warner’s easy style, this really is a delightful book. It was an enjoyable read, thoughtful, and it wove a magic spell all of its own. As a bonus, I read the 1948 Penguin edition. One shilling and sixpence (7½ pence), four square and straightforward, and just the one typo that I noticed. These are books that are as much a pleasure to handle as they are to read.