The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington
Published by Orbit UK, November 2009
Review by Mark Yon
This book has a bit of a background behind it, in that the story goes that this debut author was discovered by none other than Jeff Vandermeer, upon whose recommendation the author’s first book was sold.
Consequently some have felt that this book is nothing more than the consequence of a literary ‘leg-up’. However, in my opinion that’s a little unfair, because I think the book is good enough not to need such backing.
TSTotBG is a morality tale for characters with no morals. It is dark, cynical, and at times unpleasant, VERY unpleasant. And yet, in that strange watching a car-crash manner, an enthralling read.
Written in the style of a Brothers Grimm tale, the story tells of Hegel and Manfried Grossbart, whose ugliness on the outside pales to insignificance with their internal malaise. They think nothing of setting alight people who they think have wronged them, of cracking skulls and breaking limbs when the needs arise, whilst often debating their actions in the highest of moral tones.
Upon their first murder of a farmer, his wife and children, the two grave robbers leave their home village to escape a lynch mob. The tale broadens out into a quest style novel as they flee to pastures new. Aiming for legendary Egypt (Gyptland), where the tomb-cities offer untold riches, the brothers uncover things on the journey best left alone….
This is one of the most amoral stories I have ever read. The tale veers between outright horror, gross bodily functions and laugh-aloud absurdity, all of which are suffused with the Grossbart’s own internal morality. Though you may not agree with their actions, their own sense of moral outrage and unjustness pervades every page. Even when they are doing unspeakable things, they are convinced that what they do is correct.
Their musings on life, the universe and everything are expounded as their dance macabre through Medieval Europe and Africa is also clearly delineated. The horrors of plague, illness, misery and witchcraft are all shown here as the brothers encounter untrustworthy travellers, priests, monsters and a host of other ne’er-do-wells. Interestingly, as things develop, the Brothers actually seem to be the least of the horrors in 1364. It clearly was not an easy time to live for most common lowly mortals.
As you might expect, in the end, despite the sweary outbursts, the gore and the supernatural horrors, the tale is concluded with a gratifying ending that the reader may feel was well-deserved. (The clue’s in the title – it’s not as if you haven’t been warned!)
Whilst I would not say this was a book for everyone, the wicked sense of amorality and humour will appeal to many who like their humour dark. Like its amazing cover, it is a satisfyingly clever, well-plotted book that never takes itself too seriously and a very promising debut. More kudos for Mr Vandermeer too.
Mark Yon, November 2009