The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey: A Pinocchio for 2020

The Swallowed man is a poignant re-telling of Pinocchio up there with Edward Carey’s best work, says Jane Graham

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

As opening sentences go, this scene-setter from Edward Carey’s The Swallowed Man is as close to perfect as any I’ve read this year. How can one do anything but read on? Thankfully, as hooks go, this is a singularly rewarding one. A re-imagining of Pinocchio as told from the viewpoint of the beast-entrapped Geppetto, it surprise and delights, saddens and gladdens, from start to finish.

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Carey amassed a set of evangelical followers after his eccentric novel, Little, the fictionalised story of Marie Grosholtz, the real life Madame Tussaud. The Swallowed Man sees him carry further his fascination with marionettes and mannequins (he once worked as a steward at Madame Tussauds) and it’s tempting to regard this as a kind of second cousin to Little; the ship Geppetto finds inside the sea monster is even called Maria, surely a nod to Grosholtz.

Another returning pleasure is that of Little’s idiosyncratic tone, an oddly formal and antiquated first person voice reminiscent of, rather appropriately, Herman Melville and fellow adventurer Robert Louis Stevenson, with a prankster pinch of Tim Burton.

Poetic turns of phrase seem to come to Carey like unsolicited dreams

It is enhanced by Carey’s surreal sense of humour (‘You have dwarfed poor Ernesto’ scolds Pinocchio, referring to the wooden pencil which has been emasculated by its owners constant sharpening). Fans of Carey’s quaint, prose-illuminating sketches will also be pleased to know there are plenty more scattered throughout The Swallowed Man.

Scribbling his diary in the overwhelming gloom of the cavernous fish belly, old Geppetto reflects on the strange life of the puppet his “sacred magic” carved out of wood, whom he grew to love with a slow-burning intensity.

Poetic turns of phrase seem to come to Carey like unsolicited dreams, so effortless is the flow of evocative imagery and artful similes. The reader sits beside Geppetto in his candlelit ’watery purgatory’, the lonely captain of a wrecked ship, ailing for ‘my son, my love, my art’.

Geppetto’s peculiar empathy for inanimate objects and unloved creatures – a stuffed owl, a lost wig, a tiny beard-dwelling crab (‘Olivia’) – enhances the unique experience of residing inside the headspace of Carey, a (slightly) stranger, and certainly more welcoming domain that the stinking gut of a giant whale.

Ultimately though, this is a very touching rumination on the nature of parenthood. The miracle child enters Geppetto’s life as an ‘ungodly’ squawking and kicking enigma akin to Frankenstein’s monster; as their relationship blossoms he experiences all the usual thrills and agonies of fatherhood; ambition, fear, guilt, and pride in his creation (‘I did that’).

Looking back over his difficult upbringing with his own stern father and worried about the safety of the son he fears he is forever separated from, Geppetto is struck by the words his progeny threw at him during a typical family quarrel:

“And who are you to tell me?’

‘The one who gave you life’

‘If you gave it, then I’ll take it. And I’ll run with it.’

The Swallowed Man by Edward Carey is available now through Gallic Books, £10.99.