Mere Mortals: A Novel – Erastes (Lethe Press)

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“Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”

“Hamlet” – William Shakespeare

Erastes first places us in a carriage with Thorne, the narrator, a young man who has no immediate family, and has been banished from his school for the sin of inversion.” Thorne is travelling to Bittern’s Reach, in the Norfolk Broads of England, where Philip Smallwood, his benefactor, his guardian—whom he has never met—will no doubt bestow upon him the niceties of his wealth, his standing amongst the English gentry.

One of the passengers in the coach is a Doctor Baynes, whomErastes through Thorne describes in words, images—a wink of the eye included—reminiscent of Dickens: “The old gentleman had almost exactly the same expression as my headmaster’s wife’s terrier. I found myself on the verge of laughing as I noticed the comparison and had to bite the inside of my cheek to prevent myself from so doing. It should be a grammar exercise, I thought, still trying not to grin. The dog of the wife of my headmaster has a face like the man sitting opposite to me.”

The timeframe here is, I suspect, the mid-nineteenth century, as there is talk amongst two of the three passengers in the carriage about locomotives coming to the area, as well as bridges.

Okay. Firstly, the Norfolk Broads is an area in eastern England where rivers and lakes dominate the geography, with Bittern’s Reach  being an island of sorts within the Broads. That locomotives and bridges were even a remote possibility in such a landscape was surely a topic of argument in the mid-Nineteenth century. Apparently, railroads and bridges did eventually come to the Broads in or about 1879.

Erastes is a stickler for an accurate depiction of historical fact as background for her enchanting ability to bring the reader into the moment. And being brought into the moment, I experienced the particular warmth of such tales that are best read before a fire, perhaps with a cognac or a fine wine in the mix.

Thorne soon learns that he is not the only ward taken on by the benevolent Philip Smallwood. No, there is Jude and Myles, young men who also have come to Bittern’s Reach after banishment from their schooling for the same crime as Thorne’s: inversion. I do not believe it necessary to explain “inversion” except, suffice it to say, these boys were caught at their respective schools savoring the flesh of other boys. Their banishment from their schools, their adoption by Philip Smallwood serves as only a segue to the conflict, the crux of Erastes’ storytelling.

Doctor Baynes, a passenger in the coach within which Thorne travels to the protection of his benefactor, knows intimately the history of Philip Smallwood’s passions. And it is in those passions—later revealed in toto—where the storytelling eventually comes to a head, where truths are revealed that explain the largesse of Philip Smallwood. (A note: Smallwood” has meaning here, across the pond. Did Erastes intentionally name this man thusly? I suppose it really doesn’t matter. Just curious.)

It is difficult to expose much of the plot of this intriguing novel without giving away a very revealing hint at what the eventual outcome brings. I can tell you that Thorne and Jude have a go at it; Thorne and Myles eventually give-in to desire. But the endgame is an engaging traipse—oh, so enhanced by that cognac, that fine wine before a warming fire—that, again, is reminiscent of Dickens, but in this case, Erastes’ ability to delve deeply into the day-to-day machinations of mid-nineteenth century gentry life while, at the same time, moving the storyline forward. The barest hint of eventualities: Is the benefactor more likely the malefactor? What demons infest the soul of Philip Smallwood?

Erastes provides a cozy, intriguing, historically relevant jaunt into a time and place that, for me, is so engaging, so interesting, so feral really, that I cannot help but suggest the read is well worth the effort. This is a mystery, within an enigma, that cannot help but engross the reader as something worthy of their time, their money well spent on storytelling that is not only fascinating, but so cleanly put together that any writer will, perhaps, be envious.

Reviewed by George Seaton

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