‘I want and fear the creature’s death. I mean my fish-house. How long may it live, and how long has it lived already? A thing cannot go on indefinitely.’

Edward Carey’s version of Pinocchio has all the strangeness and pathos of the original tale with none of the Hollywood fluff. Anyone who read Carey’s extraordinarily entertaining and engrossing historical novel, Little, about the life and times of Madame Marie Tussaud, will have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of his follow up The Swallowed Man. Moving from a reimagining of an historical figure, the founder of Madame Tussauds in Baker Street, to a fictional carpenter from a children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, might seem like a leap. However, both these stories are, sort of, about puppets and art and human creativity, desire and need. There’s an awful lot of cross over between the novels and stylistically they are original, inventive and compelling.

In fact to row back a bit, the place to start might be to ask whether this is a novel, it’s certainly a story but it’s a kind of mixed-media experience too. It’s not just that the text is self illustrated by the extremely talented Carey, it’s more than that. The plates that illuminate the book aren’t just crafted as an accompaniment to the words on the page they exist as art works in their own right; they are paintings, carvings, sculptures, they are postcard images and outside of the confines of the text they still tell the story. Carey is a writer/artist imaging his story on the page but also in other forms. This is exciting for the reader/observer and so The Swallowed Man is a richly textured experience. For an idea of Carey’s art work you can find it at @Edwardcarey70. He’s been drawing pictures, on request, for every day of the continuing Covid-19 crisis.

Carey is a beguiling writer, I loved the story of Marie Tussaud, I was more sceptical of a retelling of the tale of Guiseppe Lorenzini, (Geppetto). However, this is no children’s story, it’s a fairy tale revived but darker; a macabre tale of desire and the meaning of fatherly love, of loss, the fear of loss, of longing and ambition and the creative/pro-creative urges. Although it was written before the effects of Covid-19 became known it’s an apt novel for lockdown, dealing as it does with isolation and what keeps us human when we are isolated. Readers will feel for Guiseppe, recognise the emptiness of his experience as the man in the belly of the large fish, cut off from the world and most importantly from his beloved little wooden boy, Pinocchio.

‘I am writing this account, in another man’s book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.’

Guiseppe finds himself in a cave, the place between life and death. He tells us; this is not a tale of romance, or murder, or battles but he did do a remarkable thing before being swallowed up by the shark, the monster fish, perhaps, a megalodon. Guiseppe was no whaler, no fish hunter, just a father in a dinghy looking for his lost son, the boy perhaps swept out to sea. Then the calm water boiled and the cavernous mouth consumed him. Inside he found despair, but he could stand, move around, feel a wooden structure. He fell down some stairs, found crates, candles, water and Lucifers – light to live by. A home in a fish in a ship, the Maria, out of Copenhagen, Guiseppe is emperor of Inner Sharkland. He crafts models, (the photo-plate shows the ship; driftwood, a fork, a chess pawn). Should he be grateful for the food and drink and a journal to write in, for life? In captain Harald Tugthus’ cabin he finds paints, colours. Guiseppe tells/draws the story of his son. In the town of Collodi, (the original author’s name), in Lucca; a carpenter carved a figure, a child, as he does the eyes watch him, the nose sniffed and grew, the ‘thing’ laughed.

‘I went about in a creator’s haze, in one of those moments when you are close to the divine, as if something of me and yet something altogether greater were connected to my feeble form as I worked. It was a sacred magic.’

The wood made friends with the tools, had a will of its own and the man began to love it. When he/it lied the nose grew. The wood became a boy – Pinocchio.

Just magical – it’s that time of year, this is a perfect Christmas present for the person in the family who likes an original read.

Review by Paul Burke

Gallic Press, hardback, ISBN 9781910477700, 20/11/20