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Powells.com
Monday, June 4th, 2001


 

Observatory Mansions

by Edward Carey

A review by Georgie Lewis

Observatory Mansions is a shadow of its former glory as the family home to generations of Ormes. Now a decrepit apartment building encircled by traffic, it provides a decaying sanctuary to the catatonic, the haunted, the deranged, and the fearful. Among these inhabitants is Francis Orme, who wears white gloves at all times, makes a living as a statue of whiteness in the local park, and describes himself as "the attendant of a museum. A museum of significant objects." Belonging to both people he knows and strangers, these "objects" were cherished possessions to their owners, and it is that status of having been loved that he hopes to vicariously absorb when he steals them for his "Exhibition of Love."

When Anna Tap moves in, chain smoking and half blind, she interrupts the entropy of the isolated apartment building. Her arrival initiates a process of unraveling memory that propels the evolvement (and in some circumstances, disintegration) of its tenants before ensnaring her with it. The apartment dwellers are now forced to abandon the comfort of lethargy and detachment for the pain and chaos of interaction and change. Like onion skin shed, delicate recollections are peeled back only to expose more revelations, leaving the confessor at risk, particularly to all those risks inherent in love.

Like Francis’s secret museum, memories and events unfold to form the narrative and are catalogued, dissected and classified. Times are rarely specific; instead there are spaces inhabited by an emotion, a memory or an event, and christened by Francis's response to them. Chapters contain subchapters, like movements in a symphony, with names such as "On Francis and lovers – 2", "The law of white gloves" and "An example of how even the truest friend can prove irritating."

Carey’s prose is charming, wry and comic. However melancholy a turn the story takes, Francis’s self deluded narration is beguiling and his misanthropy is that of a selfish and naïve child that one cannot help but indulge. And though Observatory Mansions is gothic in premise and quirky in character, Carey does not rely on black humor or irony. Rather he is impossibly romantic, and can sometimes capture a hopeless longing, a rejected olive branch, or a sad fate, with the tiniest of sentences. Among this entrancing story, scattered like little gems, one finds small strings of words, compact and perfectly poignant.


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