Thursday, 15 March 2012

Book Review: The Underground Man by Mick Jackson


By Mick Jackson

Published: 1 April, 2005
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Genre: Contemporary Novel
Format: Paperback
Pages: 272

Cover Art
I think the cover was the main reason I bought this book. I got the one in the middle shown above and I really, really love it. I think it has been influenced by steampunk and has that mock-Victorian thing going on with the whole sepia vibe and the leaf embellished cornicing that you can image in a huge sprawling stately home in England. 

The cover on the left is a little TOO mock old for me to the point where it looks grandma-ish and seriously outdated. I also don't like how the photograph of the Duke (who is the main narrator and also a real historical figure) is really central and featured on the cover. The cover on the right is OK...seems a bit more suited to a children's book which this definitely isn't. That character also really doesn't fit the description of the Duke in the book- he always wears a beaver not a top hat! A small thing but...well...I strive for perfection :-). Obviously.

Plot Synopsis
The story is presented as a collection of diary entries, mainly from the Duke of Portland (William John Cavendish Bentinck-Scott) who was a real person who the world between 1800 and 1879. And if this story is anything to go by he was a tad eccentric. At his estate in Nottinghamshire it is still possible to view the skylights where the late Duke built a network of tunnels underground. This story attempts to unearth why, as no-one really knows (or remembers) why he commissioned them. However, the Duke's eccentricity slowly begins to cross the line into madness and his actions become more and more deranged until he loses all grip on reality. 

My Rating
First Lines
 'I have no idea how an apple tree works. The quiet machine beneath the bark is quite beyond my ken. But, like the next man along, I find Imagination always willing to leap to Ignorance's breach...'

OK. I didn't enjoy this book. I know that I didn't enjoy it because I could only read 20-30 pages at a time and fell asleep whilst reading it more than once. I find this very upsetting because I really thought I was going to love it. Everything about it appealed to me; the story of a mad Duke building a labyrinth of tunnels under his huge, sprawling estate to escape from a dark secret that haunts him, the cover of the book, OH the cover, is so gorgeous and sepia and steampunk and creepy and, lastly, because I have read two other very good books by the same author: 'Ten Sorry Tales' and 'Bears of England'. So why did this one which I was looking forward to THE MOST have to be so boring?! The quote on the cover is taken from 'Observer' who say that the book was 'Quite Simply, Astonishing'. I can only assume that this quote was taken by a casual observer on the street who has only seen the cover and not actually read it rather than THE Observer because absolutely nothing about this book was astonishing. NOTHING I TELL YOU!

The protagonist is dull. Dull, dull, dull. He is not the eccentric yet lovable duke character that every quote on the back tells you he is; he is rambling and inane and unoriginal. Not an interesting, memorable literary character but more a trying-too-hard attempt by the author to be offbeat and wacky. Bleurgh. The story is narrated by the Duke through diary entries (again, BLEURGH) so you never know how much to believe what you are told. But this is not done well; it's not so much I didn't believe him but, rather, I felt what he was saying in 2 pages only warranted a sentence. If you want a really good unreliable narrator where you're unsure whether what your being told is true read 'Pale Fire' by Nabokov. Much better as the plot is intricate enough to really be able to see how you are being manipulated and still be surprised at the end.

The tunnels are never explained. They are the main selling point of the novel yet they are never explained. This is a sin. They are also described in a really strange way which makes it hard to picture them in your head. They are also not labyrinthine and spooky but straight and with skylights. I don't know why this bothers me but it does! An early account from the man hired by the Duke to dig them ruins the mystique of them immediately. People keep saying this novel harks back to gothic novels, largely because of these tunnels. How!? To me, it doesn't feel Gothic at all.

The 'twist' at the end. I don't want to say too much's not a twist in my opinion. The Duke's erratic behaviour is not explained. It appears his 'descent into madness' that the blurb has already told us will happen only really means the last 50 pages or so, not the whole novel. So the other shit he was doing was fine and needs no explanation. Again, infuriating.

Lastly, the main issue I have with this novel is the blurb and the Goodreads description and every place that gives you a synopsis of the plot. In this review, I have touched on these descriptions, which I did to highlight how wrong they are. Not only are they misleading, but they actually ruin the book. If the Duke was not presented as this madman with a secret everywhere and just a normal man, it would be more interesting because then the reader would make up their own mind. As it is, because I already knew what I was supposed to be getting, I was constantly expecting there to be some big reveal at the end and for everything he had said to have been through completely different eyes to everyone else (like a proper Gothic twist e.g- he's locked in an insane asylum and has been skewing events to imagine he's living the life he describes. I'm not saying this would be a good twist just that I was expecting something like that- more dramatic, more Shutter Island. What I got was more Shitter Island). This novel has been marketed all wrong. 

OK so why did I even give it two and a half stars? Because it is well written. If it was marketed differently it would be a good novel. If emphasis wasn't placed so much on the tunnels, as if they are a huge part of the plot, this review would probably be a lot different. As it is, I am annoyed that I was so excited for this book and it let me down so brutally

Other Thoughts

This Book has Inspired me to Read: I have already read 'Ten Sorry Tales' and 'Bears of England' by Mick Jackson and they were really good- I would recommend them. I would like to read more books about mazes and tunnels- I might grab a copy of 'The Maze Runner' by James Dashner which will hopefully satisfy by thirst for them!

A Quote I Liked From the Book:

Three Words to Describe this Book: Unusual, Tedious, Uneventful


  1. I love how different the covers are for those books -- would love to know the thought process behind them.

    1. I know what you mean- they are so completely different from each other! It almost seems to me as though the one on the left is for older people, the one in the middle is for young people and the one on the right is for children! They all seem to give a really different vibe about the book- I am tempted to give away my copy because I didn't like the book but then I look at the sepia steampunk-ish cover and just can't! x

  2. Oh, I hate when you go into a book expecting it to be one thing and it turns out to be completely the opposite. Especially when the synopsis, the reviews, and the blurbs get you all excited to read it! It's especially frustrating when you know that you probably would have enjoyed it had it not been for all of the built-up expectations.

    1. I knowww :-( It was so sad when I realised that I really wasn't going to enjoy it. I had been looking forward to getting it for aggges! I feel it was really badly marketed and the blurb was all wrong for the type of book it annoys me when a book has a blurb that is really good and that will sell copies but is totally misleading! Ugh! Never mind- I'm sure I will get over it...someday :-) x

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