Neversuch House, with a name evidently based on Henry VIII’s fabled Nonesuch Palace, is a gothic combination of Citizen Kane’s Xanadu and Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse College. Within this ‘monstrous cluster of buildings and towers’, with a population equivalent to that of a small town, lives the extended Halibut family and a line of hereditary and controlling servants, enveloped by a vast but crumbling wall and secure in the belief that ‘the world outside was hard, dirty, smelly and rough’. Tradition is followed unthinkingly and callously – at a gross funeral feast, children sit high in the trees ‘without any particular rhyme or reason’ and occasionally fall to the ground ‘with obvious consequences’. We first meet Omnia, aged twelve and three quarters, in a tree but, unlike other Halibuts, she demonstrates ‘curiosity, originality, initiative’. And, it appears, someone is trying to kill her – could it be to do with the vast black bird which some think they have seen above a remote tower of the House?
Early in the book, Skell comments that ‘before we go forward, we have to go back’, and we are given the quasi-mythical beginnings of Neversuch – the arrival, hundreds of years ago, of the first Captain Halibut and his servant, Digby, and how they built the vast House which dominates the nearby town. But what became of his treasure, rumoured to be hidden beneath one of the towers? This is the secret underlying the story in this novel, which is clearly intended to be the first of a series. Inevitably, the book takes time building up the ambiance and introducing a vast cast of characters, who often have confusingly similar names. The book begins with a TV-style ‘teaser’ in which an elderly man is pushed to his death in his wheelchair down a flight of stairs – an incident which typifies the black humour of the story but which might be unsuitable for younger readers.
Overall, this is an engrossing book, encompassing a convincing and detailed mythology, dark humour, a Dickensian sense of social satire, and an exciting adventure with an enterprising young heroine. Some younger readers may find the establishing chapters slightly hard going, but the adventure that follows is worth the effort.