Observatory Mansions

By Megan Thomas

I’d like to start off by saying that this is not a Christmas book, but I’m reviewing it in December and so: let there be Yuletide polar bears! I say this, but if a polar bear turned up in the middle of Observatory Mansions, it wouldn’t be all that shocking. Stranger things have happened. There is a human-dog-woman, after all. 

This was Edward Carey’s first novel and reading it (or rather listening to it as an audiobiook) 20 years after it was published did not alter how much I enjoyed it at all (in fact I’d have never guessed it, because it speaks to the human condition so much more than a particular time period).

It’s the story of Francis Orme and the lives of the fellow co-habitants of Observatory Mansions: once a grand family estate populated by Ormes, now a crumbling apartment block filled with an assortment lost, hopeless, kind-of-terrifying and seemingly lifeless people. But the arrival of new blood, Anna Tapp, shakes things up, and nothing is the same after her arrival. No one will be allowed to wallow in their loneliness anymore. Everyone will feel, regardless of what that feeling is.

Francis, fittingly, is a living statue by profession, but his “Exhibition” is his life’s passion: a private collection of valuable objects… valuable to other people, that is, not necessarily to him. He steals their glasses, or photographs of their loved ones, for instance, and then preserves them in a crypt. He does this, I think, as a desperate attempt to connect without connecting, symbolic of how we spend our lives using objects to define ourselves, but their worthlessness without us ascribing them meaning. It’s a dark and twisted fable of human connection, and it’s morbidly funny. It’ll certainly make you chuckle. Or maybe weep. Or is it both?

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