Saturday, October 10, 2009

Review: Guest Review by Frank McGillion of Major Benjy

Necromancing Major Benjy and Friends
Frank McGillion

Title: “Major Benjy”
Author: Guy Fraser-Sampson
Publisher: Troubador
Date of publication: 1 September 2008
ISBN: 978-1906510-749

Raising the dead has its dangers and Edward Frederick Benson knew them. For he was told that his father only turned to the priesthood after attempting something of this sort, being so horrified at what he conjured up he felt he had to embrace God professionally. Raising spirits, by way of contrast, can be very jolly indeed. And in his exciting new book Major Benjy, Guy Fraser-Sampson does both. He raises the dead – albeit metaphorically – by resurrecting the much-loved characters of Fred Benson’s legendary Miss Mapp and Lucia novels: those works of humorous fiction, crafted in the 1930s, that retain a highly discerning following today. He raises our spirits too, by producing a work of such richness and variety that we cannot fail to feel elevated to rare heights of pleasure on reading it.

Unlike Benson’s father however, there will be no need for Mr Fraser-Sampson to alter his profession. So accurate is his reincarnation of these characters and their milieu, it should simply transform this best-selling author of non-fiction into a best-selling novelist.

For in this gem of a book those unfamiliar with Benson’s town of Tilling and its occupants will discover that a setting that had drifted into hibernation in book form, has now re-emerged fully awake and raring to go. Those familiar with Tilling will immediately find themselves returning to a place so similar to that portrayed in Benson’s originals that it is barely distinguishable from them.

The much maligned term ‘ghost writer’ acquires a brand new meaning here, as Benson’s doppelganger is clearly at work creating a familiar world imbued with an unfamiliar freshness. Each part of this book is superbly crafted: the shifting point of view, the characterisation, location, prose style, dialogue and the story-line itself. Deft of touch, meticulous in detail, with plot twists as unpredictable and sophisticated as Tilling’s very own capricious Contessa, the author explores the characters and their surroundings in quite masterful detail.

The plot takes off when the retired, ex-colonial Major Benjy, pulls open his front door to Elizabeth Mapp. He puts on what charm he can for Tilling’s best-known lady of leisure. What he hasn’t put on however, are his trousers. And for those of us familiar with Miss Mapp’s class-based sensibilities, we soon realise we have a game on. And what a wonderful game it is! We are taken to the highways and byways – the ins and outs – of both Tilling and its residents.

Thus we are: privy to a dinner party where the Major out-sozzles himself with archetypal élan and discovers himself in an unwelcome spotlight; to a crossword puzzle that leads to cross words and dangerously crossed lines between Tilling’s finest; to a rubber of bridge that bounces about like a crime thriller, and to a cake competition that gradually rises with unbearable, and unchristian, tension, culminating in a form of Find-the-Lady played with a chocolate gateaux, a white frosted icing cake, a cohort of name flags and a tin of Cherry Blossom shoe polish.

We learn of the delicately described exertions of Major Benjy with the enigmatic love interest—Heather, as the story flows along, its twists and turns, eddies and ripples seeping into the reader from one of the finest and funniest works of fiction to appear in a very long time.

Most importantly, the author portrays – through a medium-dry and perfectly honed humour – just how unpleasant people can be to one another however intimate they may seem. In doing so he offers us insight to both the characters and ourselves. And in the finest traditions of literature of any genre, he enables us to realise once again that human nature, whatever its social origins, is complex, contradictory and often unpleasantly surprising.

This is especially true when he portrays the ruthless demands of the English class system and those driven by its diktats. There is one scene in particular that does this superbly. This is when one of the female characters takes verbal revenge on her hostess, friend, confidante, and bitter enemy. So powerful is the description of her emotions that we are reminded how skilfully the genre of humour can be used to portray the vagaries of the human spirit when in capable hands.

In summary what we have here is an enchanting and poignant masterpiece that takes us back to a world we had thought long gone. Hence we are able to revisit life in the town of Tilling several generations after it effectively ceased to exist. Once again we can share the lives of a set of irrepressible characters who plot and scheme to outdo friend and foe alike and who portray their very human sides as they do so.

Yes, raising the dead has it dangers, but the only danger with this book is that we consider it one of the very best by E.F. Benson, when it is, in fact, written by a posthumous protégée of whom that same Fred Benson would be very proud indeed.

We look forward to having our spirits raised again soon by Guy Fraser-Sampson. And the sooner that happens the better.

©Frank McGillion June 2008

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