The Hero of Our Own Story?

What do you do when you discover a great new book, or a fantastic author?  You tell your friends, right?  Or that’s what I’ve always done.  The number of times my friends and I have run between each others’ houses, frantically waving some amazing new literary world that we’ve discovered, wanting to share it with each other.  Because the more minds a story lives in, the richer it becomes, every new reader adding a little bit of themselves to their perception of it.  That’s the magic of stories; it’s real.

Increasingly, I find that the books that really fire my imagination simply aren’t found on the shelves of my local bookshop any more.  They’re small press titles, or they’re indie titles, or they’re published overseas.  I need to rummage on the internet to find the kinds of stories that thrill me.  And the internet is a big, wide ocean of stuff, where it’s difficult to find anything except by chance.  But still we find our little treasure troves of titles and recommendations on here, and we find stories and authors that enchant us anew.  And yes, we want to share them, don’t we?

So in between other blogs, I’ll occasionally highlight a book or author which has really bowled me over, shouting it out in the hope that others may shout their own discoveries back to me.  And for this first blog review, I want to shout out about Molly Tanzer and most especially her latest novel, The Pleasure Merchant, which is the best read I’ve had in years.

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This isn’t the first Molly Tanzer book I’ve read.  I’ve also enjoyed A Pretty MouthRumbullion and Vermilion.  These three titles (two collections of short stories and a novel respectively), whilst not precisely horror by any means, all fall into the category best described as ‘weird fiction’, and thus might be assumed to be more in line with my own weird tastes than The Pleasure Merchant, which is a more purely historical novel (albeit exceptionally weird in its own wonderful way).  However, much as I love the three earlier titles (and I do; I really do), Merchant is just such a special tale that I can’t relegate it to second place behind anything.  Hang on a second!  Am I in fact saying that this is the best book I’ve read?  EVER?!  You know what, for these past several months I do believe that’s precisely how I’ve been viewing it, though I haven’t said so much in words before.  But what is certain is that this is a book that needs to be read, and it needs to be read by YOU, right now!  This story needs to be felt across the whole world!

Okay, fanboyish exultations aside, what’s it all about?  Here’s the curious thing, it’s just such an oddity, breaking all the received rules about what a story should be, but doing so gloriously, hilariously, sexily and outrageously.

On the surface, the book is about an apprentice wig maker named Tom Dawne, who loses his job as collateral damage of a prank which causes a gentleman to lose face.  No wig maker’s business is going to last long if it goes around causing gentlemen to lose face, so although he is proven to be innocent of wrongdoing, Tom’s presence at the periphery of the event causes his master to fire him.

Tom’s fortunes take a turn for the better as he is immediately hired as a personal assistant and companion to another gentleman, swiftly rising within the household to be his new master’s confidant.  He gains social standing, money, fancy clothing, and all manner of saucy dalliances in the process, but he also forgets himself.  He forgets where he came from, he forgets the promises he made to others, he comes to think of himself as invincible and forgets that every good turn in his fortunes has been the result of pure luck, not his own judgement.

And here’s where it gets so very clever.  You see, although the book is all about Tom, he’s not actually the narrator, nor is he really the main character.  This focal individual is not properly revealed until half way through, and the titular Pleasure Merchant does not appear until slightly after that.

There’s a popular saying that we are all the hero of our own story, the story of our own lives that unfolds within our own consciousness.  This may be true, but it is the brilliant audacity of this book to reveal that Tom, whose tale it tells, is not actually the hero nor the main character of this story.  I don’t want to spoil it, but suffice to say that after winning so high through luck, the one time when he becomes arrogant enough to believe himself to be in control and to take the reins of his own destiny … well, he quickly discovers that he was but a passing character in a larger story after all.

It is a masterpiece of storytelling confidence to tell a tale like this from a perspective like this, subverting expectations (and subverting a lot more along the way too!)

Apart from everything else, it’s just so well told, so immersive, with enthralling characters and situations.  There are plenty of laughs, plenty of intrigues, plots and counter-plots, and a healthy dose of cheeky smut, set at just the right temperature to boggle the eyes and bring a blush to the cheeks.

So hey, pals, I’ve found a GREAT book!  Off you run and have a whale of time reading it.