I have to thank those of you who mentioned Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’ when I asked for books on Victoriana or death because without them The Converted One would never have ordered this book for me and I would have been missing out on a treat. In fact only hours ago Granny Savidge Reads was discussing what a ‘hoot’ she found this as a read. No it’s not a funny book about Victoriana but a rather wonderful and whimsical book about the business of death and one I would insist you all go out and read, even if you don’t think it’s a very you book.
As ‘The Loved One’ opened I wasn’t sure that I was going to get on with it too well. It had a group of pompous British expatriates discussing many things banal in the material heights of Los Angeles. It is here and in this company that Dennis Barlow, an English poet, has come to stay with his uncle Sir Francis and tried to make a name for himself. However Dennis hasn’t managed and instead finds himself reading books behind a desk at a rather unsuccessful pet’s funeral parlour and not really getting anywhere in life, though seemingly happy with his lot.
“Dennis was a young man of sensibility rather than of sentiment. He had lived his twenty-eight years at arm’s length from violence, but he came of a generation which enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death. Never, it so happened, had he seen a human corpse until that morning when, returning tired from night duty, he found his host strung to the rafters. The spectacle had been rude and momentarily unnerving; but his reason accepted the event as part of the established order.”
This isn’t set to last and in fact doesn’t as very early on Sir Francis is fired from his Hollywood job at Megalopolitan Studio’s and decides to take his own life, in doing so his nephew Dennis is left in charge of the funeral and ends up in the necropolis ‘Whispering Glades’ where death seems like a wonderful option and can have all the finest trimmings and sometimes come out looking better than you did when you were alive. “Why, if he’d sat on an atom bomb, they’d make him presentable.” That line and its delivery made me laugh for about ten minutes. It’s very dark humour with sprinklings of an almost campness throughout, or maybe just a wry smile throughout.
“A young lady rose from a group of her fellows to welcome him, one of the new race of exquisite, amiable, efficient young ladies whom he had met everywhere in the United States. She wore a white smock and over her sharply supported left breast was embroidered the words, Mortuary Hostess.
‘Can I help you in any way?’
‘I came to arrange about a funeral.’
‘Is it for yourself?’”
It is going through the rigmarole of funeral procedures and arrangements for his uncle that Dennis meets the beautiful Aimee Thanatogenos, a corpse cosmetician, and becomes besotted starting not only one of the funniest and slightly outrageous books I have had the good fortune of reading, but also the unlikeliest but most readable love triangles between Dennis, Aimee and an embalmer called Mr Joyboy that leads to a rather shock ending I wasn’t expecting.
“We had a Loved One last month who passed over with electrical cord. Even Mr Joyboy could do nothing with that. We had to wind a scarf right up to the chin. But suspenders should come out quite satisfactorily.”
I laughed out loud a lot with this book and I wasn’t expecting it (though maybe with a dedication ‘to Nancy Mitford’ inside I should have guessed) it charmed me. I loved the irony, comical cynical attitude of the author and random plot developed and it entertained me and took me away from everything for the two hours that I couldn’t put it down. Ten out of ten! This is a lesser known work of Waugh’s that has left me looking forward to reading many, many more of his books in the future. In fact I am aiming to have a collection rather like this…
It’s wickedly entertaining and a real riot to read, if in some slightly dubious taste, I bet this caused quite the stir when it was published in 1948. I am pretty sure that this is destined to be one of my favourite books of recent years and quite possibly will be heading into my top 40 along with Neil Bartlett’s dark gem ‘Skin Lane’ (I have been very lucky with some excellent reads of late). I think that Waugh is also an author that may become a favourite, this is nothing like ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and yet equally brilliant in its difference from it. Which way with Waugh next?