Date finished: January 31st 2017
When I finished my final exam of my final year of university, I came home and found my housemate, who had already finished his own exams, sat in the garden on a glorious June afternoon with a bottle of rhubarb liqueur he’d decided to treat himself to. He offered me a glass and there we sat, reading, occasionally stopping to chat, drinking. It was a gorgeous day, and I remember feeling profoundly content.
Rhubarb liqueur, it turns out, isn’t conducive to memory, and as a result, I’d since forgotten much about the story I was reading that day. I remembered that I thoroughly enjoyed it and, after happening upon a copy in a charity shop, decided to revisit the novel from that glorious afternoon three years ago.
The Hippopotamus was that novel, and it recounts a curious event in the life of Ted Wallace, a boorish, acid-tongued alcoholic, failed poet, failed theatre critic and devoted cynic. After being fired by his newspaper, he runs into his goddaughter Jane, who’s recovering from a bout of terminal cancer. She claims that she was miraculously cured at the home of Ted’s best friend, Lord Logan, and enthuses for Ted to go and investigate the strange occurrences. Intrigued, Ted goes along to the mansion to find a motley crew of old acquaintances each with ulterior motives for a summer stay at the old friend’s. As events grow ever stranger, Ted has to face the possibility that perhaps there are some things that cannot be explained.
Stephen Fry – yes, that Stephen Fry, wrote a spate of novels in the ’90s which are actually quite good. I read a couple of his others around my third year of university, but this one was always my favourite. It combines the verbosity and humour one would expect of Fry, and manages to double as both an intriguing mystery, as well as a rather witty and raunchy story. Indeed, there’s a few scenes that are liable to stick in the mind of any reader thanks to their sheer perverse hilarity.
There’s a lot of fun to be had in this infinitely readable novel. It’s by no means perfect, but that’s hardly the point. Shamelessly pompous, brutally self-aware and eager to curl toes of those with a sensitive disposition, Fry’s short career as a novelist is shamefully forgotten, but The Hippopotamus is testament to how great a writer he could be.