This is a bizarre little book. It is 158 pages of surreal characters living in an almost fairytale world written with a hand that is not only deft with comedy, but with a pencil or paintbrush. Leonora Carrington was a surrealist painter and she also applied her extravagant imagination to novels. The Hearing Trumpet is one such novel. It was a recommendation on The Book Show and the story grabbed me just a swiftly as the cover art.
It’s a tough book to summarise as much of the enjoyment of the book comes from the eccentric twists and turns. The story opens with 92 year old Marion Leatherby is given a hearing trumpet by her friend Carmella, to aid her hearing in day to day life. With this Marion overhears her family plan to send her to an old people’s home and relieve themselves of their “burden”. With this Marion is sent to the home and from there her life is filled with senile old ladies, murder plots, demons, magic and werewolves. I know, right?
The best thing about the book is the writing and particularly the dialogue. Carrington certainly had a way with words and she used each sentence to create this small surreal world that pulls you in. Her writing feels as if it’s just you and her, its joyful and in a strange way, rather private. Above all, the book is brilliantly funny, but again, in a surreal way. Fans of The Mighty Boosh and shows of its ilk, will welcome The Hearing Trumpet with open arms and in fact the book was recommended to Noel Fielding on The Book Show, so it all makes sense.
Upon receiving the hearing trumpet from Carmella Marion asks why she needs it. Carmella explains it is so that she can hear people and make sure they aren’t conspiring against her. In her own words: “People that are under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats.” This line sums up Carmella, the star of the book; she is beyond eccentric or quirky. She is as senile as Marion and the other ladies in the book and her serious delivery of her lines pushes the humour to another level.
Upon hearing that Marion is being sent to an old people’s home her mind runs into overdrive. To her the old person’s home is a prison; Marion will be part of a chain gang, fed truth serums and locked behind bars. She even suggests a way to help Marion escape: “I would be waiting below with a machine gun and an automobile, a hired automobile you know, I don’t suppose it would be too expensive for an hour or two.” Upon being asked how she knows how to operate a machine gun, Carmella simply replies: “Machine guns… are simplicity itself. You load them with a lot of bullets and press a trigger. There is no intellectual manipulation necessary and you don’t have to actually hit anything, the noise impresses people, they think you are dangerous if you have a machine gun.”
Her speeches are a thing of wonder and the book is brimming with similar characters and situations. As the plot twists and turns through quite a convoluted (but not in a bad way) story you never quite know what the next page will contain. It’s like playing pass the parcel if the game was arranged by, well… a surrealist artist. Actually, the book even features sketches of moments from the book by Carrington, so her art heightens the prose even further.
Admittedly the middle section of the book falls a little flat as a second story is told within Marion’s but it is still integral to the overall plot. I actually at one point struggled to come back to the book, but I’m so glad I did. And, of course, you need a very open mind to enjoy it. Lauded as the “occult twin to Alice in Wonderland”, it is exactly that. Luis Bunuel said about the book, “Liberates us from the miserable reality of our days.” That sentence sums the book up perfectly. The word ‘story’ should be represented by books such as The Hearing Trumpet for what I as a reader want from a book is imagination, a world unlike out own and an experience. The Hearing Trumpet succeeds on every level.
Available now from Penguin. Paperback – 158 pages, fiction.
I would love to read more of Carrington’s work but sadly can’t find much information about whether her other novels were translated and if so where to get them. Have you read any of Carrington’s other works?