"The Uncommon Reader"

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennet

Not quite the lighthearted caper I expected, this novelette is fun with serious moments. The premise is certainly unusual: late in life the Queen discovers the pleasure of reading books and loses interest in some of her more mundane duties when they interfere with her new hobby. This soon becomes a matter of concern to palace officials, the Prime Minister and the Queen's family, but, she is the Queen and one does not tell the Queen to put the book down. 

As an unrepentant anglophile I reveled in the sheer Britishness of it - the formality, the palace, the teas, the constant attention to propriety, the wry tone - I loved it all. I got a bit testy when I thought Her Majesty's character was being negatively misrepresented but I reminded myself that it is, after all, fiction. Still - do not mess with my Queen.

The book does take a serious turn now and then. One passage begins with the Queen saying: "One has given one's white-gloved hand to hands that were steeped in blood and conversed politely with men who have personally slaughtered children", going on to say that she has sometimes felt shame rather than pride as Queen of the Commonwealth. I appreciated this reflective aspect of the novel for the bit of depth it provided, which saved it from being inane.

There was a single very rude phrase used in dialogue that was unnecessary and out of place. I tend to agree with whoever it was that said "Vulgarity is a poor substitute for wit." Wit would have been a better choice.

The thing I liked best about An Uncommon Reader was the ending, which was completely unexpected. As I got down to the last page or so I tried to imagine how the author would resolve the problem in the few lines he had left, but I did not see this coming at all. It was beautifully subtle and perfectly arranged. What a nice change it was to read something unpredictable.

I think any fan of British culture and especially the Royal family will enjoy this quirky little book.


Anonymous said...

This one is in my TBR stack - thanks for the great review - I'm keen to start it now.

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