Monday, 12 June 2017

Book Review | Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott


The town of Rotherweird stands alone—there are no guidebooks, despite the fascinating and diverse architectural styles cramming the narrow streets, the avant garde science and offbeat customs. Cast adrift from the rest of England by Elizabeth I, Rotherweird's independence is subject to one disturbing condition: nobody, but nobody, studies the town or its history.

For beneath the enchanting surface lurks a secret so dark that it must never be rediscovered, still less reused. But secrets have a way of leaking out...

Two inquisitive outsiders have arrived: Jonah Oblong, to teach modern history at Rotherweird School (nothing local and nothing before 1800), and the sinister billionaire Sir Veronal Slickstone, who has somehow been given permission to renovate the town's long-derelict Manor House.

Slickstone and Oblong, though driven by conflicting motives, both strive to connect past and present, until they and their allies are drawn into a race against time—and each other. The consequences will be lethal and apocalyptic.

***

[The Full English: Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott]

If J. K. Rowling had given Jasper Fforde permission to document a decade of derring-do in Diagon Alley, the result would read rather like Rotherweird, an appetising if stodgy smorgasbord of full English fiction set in a town unlike any other.
Like everyone else, Oblong had heard of the Rotherweird Valley and its town of the same name, which by some quirk of history were self-governing—no MP and no bishop, only a mayor. He knew too that Rotherweird had a legendary hostility to admitting the outside world: no guidebook recommended a visit; the County History was silent about the place. (p.15)
Yet Rotherweird is in need of a teacher, and Oblong—Jonah Oblong, whose career in education to date has been a disgrace—is in need of a job, so he doesn't ask any of the questions begged by the classified ad inviting interviewees to the aforementioned valley. Instead, he packs a bag, takes a train, a taxi, and then—because "Rotherweird don't do cars," (p.16) as his toothless chauffeur tells him—"an extraordinary vehicle, part bicycle, part charabanc, propelled by pedals, pistons and interconnecting drums," (p.17) and driven by a laughably affable madman.

Need I note that nothing in Rotherweird is as it seems? Not the people, not the public transport, and certainly not the place, as Oblong observes as his new home heaves into view:
The fog enhanced the feel of a fairground ride, briefly thinning to reveal the view before closing again. In those snapshots, Oblong glimpsed hedgerows and orchards, even a row of vines—and at one spectacular moment, a vision of a walled town, a forest of towers in all shapes and sizes, encircled by a river. (pp.19-20)
It's here, in lofty lodgings and under the care of his own "general person," (p.41) that Oblong is installed after he's hired as a history teacher. But the position comes with one stickler of a condition: he has "a contractual obligation to keep to 1800 and thereafter, if addressing the world beyond the valley, and to treat Rotherweird history as off-limits entirely. Here he must live in the moment. Private speculation could only lead him astray." (p.43) And if you venture too far off the beaten path in Rotherweird, you might just end up disappeared—the very fate which befell Oblong's incurably curious predecessor.