GEMMELL, N. J. The Kensington Reptilarium Random House, 2013 297pp $16.95 pbk +e ISBN 9780857980502 SCIS 1627415
Here is a fast-moving farce that at first demands some close attention from the reader. It is all so ridiculous, and the plot far-fetched. Conveniently, a double spread immediately following the title page sketches, with headings, the cast of characters, in descending order of age: Basti (a somewhat sternly aloof Gentleman who stands erect with a cobra draped around his neck); Thomasina, a girl mostly referred to as Kick or Kicketty who is the eldest of the Caddy kids, and a mother substitute to the younger family members: Scruff , a lad whose name frames him exactly; Bert, actually Albertina, given to dress-ups and would-be artiness; Pin (and Banjo, his toy bear) who gets away with everything because he is the youngest and cuddliest, and not-forgetting Bucket, the dingo pet.
Strangely this bizarre tale, that raises a ‘how ridiculous’ thought, comes to be accepted (at first reluctantly by the purist) in that there is an inbuilt mystery, a racy plot, plenty of witty and humorous asides, dashes of pathos, and, let’s face it, especially for the last third of the plot, a build up of romanticism in the sense of ‘it mostly turns out right in the end’. There are few connective sentences or narrative ploys here. Rather the sentences or utterances tend to be staccato: a kind of verbal high-jinks. One enters a secondary world of nonsense with plenty of special effects.
But: this is a good read, with poetic under-lays and touches of Alice in Wonderland. It opens with the Caddy foursome living in the red outback, having spent World War II on the family station ‘in the middle of Woop Woop’, making do, and leading a happy unfettered life with Kick in charge. A visit from a police car bearing a ‘White Suit’ puts an end to the Caddy kid’s carefree lifestyle. With little ado they are on their way to London to stay supposedly with their Uncle Basti whose address is the Kensington Reptilarium. It is either that or an orphanage. At this point Gemmell’s book takes up some of the facets of a less farcical novel, despite the stereotype of the misunderstood relative who gradually thaws to finally shed a gruff exterior and emerge eventually as a likeable human being. True, there are other stereotypes such as Basti’s elderly female neighbour and, of course, Charlie Boo, Basti’s talented butler who has passed the Reptilian test. That means that he can handle the great variety of reptiles that inhabit the Reptilarium and thus create a deal of the horror as well as the comedic tension at this point in the story. The reader here is beginning to glimpse the possibility that Uncle Basti’s soft side may well prevail and Christmas candles could perhaps light the way to better things, but one last surprise awaits the patient reader!
Overall the shift from outback Australia to the crowded and noisy streets of London; the changes of climate and social mores are well handled. Farce is, in the final analysis, absorbed into fantasy. The Kensington Reptilarium becomes a secondary world where even pythons may be handled with impunity. Readers of Gemmell’s racy adult novels will no doubt not be disappointed with this mad romp, and literary-minded readers will appreciate the touches of true fantasy along with a determination to woo a young adult audience. MS