Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake book cover
Having had the scene set by Titus Groan, Gormenghast (1950), the second instalment in the Gormenghast trilogy, develops many of the characters already familiar and introduces a range of new creations. As with the previous book the plot glides through the corridors of the ancient castle of Gormenghast, gently depicting its inhabitants as they live their lives; the ferocious ascent of Steerpike, Titus’s journey towards manhood, Irma Prunesquallor’s romance with the headmaster.

However, unlike Titus Groan, the plot, while flabby in places, has a far greater drive and accelerates dramatically towards the end of the novel. This greater potency allows one to become wrapped up in not only the magnificent word craft, but also the story, whether it be Steerpike’s scheming or Titus’s rebellion against the tired and futile rituals of the castle. The added angst that a maturing and rebellious Titus brings to the story creates an extra dimension and energy, and draws parallels with a British youth reacting against the dusty rituals of an outdated and crumbling empire.

Mervyn Peake’s prose is once more a delight and a joy to read – his descriptions of the world he has created run rich and strong throughout the novel. Whilst the writing lacks incisiveness in the long descriptive passages, much of the joy of reading Peake is contained in these tangential, and strictly speaking unnecessary, sections. In addition there is a fresh harshness to the novel, many of the characters retained from Titus Groan have become harder and less caricatured, leading to a heavier and more sinister tone.

Although Gormenghast is a more complete book in isolation than Titus Groan the pacing is still a little jarring – the first half of the novel is gentle and loping much like its predecessor, but the acceleration of  the plot in the second half is startling and grabs ones attention in a bright and exciting way. However, after gently building the world of Gormenghast and its cast of oddities Peake savagely cuts short the plotlines that have been so subtlety crafted and leaves one wondering how the third book in the series, Titus Alone, can possibly retain and extend the aesthetic and story that the first two so assuredly developed.

It took me a while to get into the Gormenghast series and even now I'm not sure that I 'get it', but I did enjoy Gormenghast more than Titus Groan - I just can't see where Peake can go in the next instalment without creating an entirely different work. 

Useful Links
Reviews of Gormenghast on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptation of Gormenghast on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptation of Gormenghast on Amazon (US)

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Titus Groan (1946), the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy, is a panoramic depiction of the walled city of Gormenghast and its bizarre inhabitants. The novel opens with the birth of Titus, heir to the throne, and over 500 pages details the first... [Read More]
Review: Titus Alone by Mervyn Peake (Book 3, Gormeghast)
Titus Alone (1959) is the third book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, and is a significant departure from the previous novels. Where both Titus Groan and Gormenghast take place in what appears to be a medieval stronghold.... [Read More]