Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on February 3, 2012.
Characters: **** (4 Stars)
Character Development: **** (4 Stars)
Plot: *** (3 Stars)
Writing: *** (3 Stars)
Overall: ***1/2 (3 1/2 Stars)
Age Range Recommendation: 15+
The cover art and title of Mr Toppit proved to be slightly deceitful, I learned, for I picked it up on a whim expecting a mysterious gothic tale full of dark deeds and murky gloom. Upon reading the novel – and it is a quick, engrossing read – I found gloom aplenty and mysteries of a sort. However, the murk and horror I was looking for were replaced with incredibly dry British wit and a series of dark family secrets paraded through the disparate settings of London, an English country home, and sunny California. The misery and tension arise not through willful villainy but through the difficulties which a relatively modern English family fails to overcome when Arthur Hayman – the narrator’s father and fictive author of a popular children’s series – gets run over in London and dies in the arms of an American tourist.
The whole plot of Mr Toppit revolves around the family’s inability to function after Arthur’s death, the sudden popularity boom his children’s books – The Hayseed Chronicles – experience as a result of the tragedy, and the American Laurie’s sudden emotional connection to the Haymans. The characters are extreme but realistic in their strengths and weaknesses; Charles Elton does a fine job of writing as a teenage boy, a frazzled woman, and a whole slew of other distinct characters who never lose their voice or seem too over-the-top. Luke Hayman makes an excellent narrator as the jaded inspiration for the child hero of his father’s Hayseed Chronicles, his sister Rachel is a tragic and manic hot mess, and their mother Martha (my personal favorite character) is the most stereotypically English manipulative bitch ever written. Laurie’s chapters did not appeal to me so much since I thought she was pretty unlikeable, but one could argue that she is the most human character. I just have an exaggerated dislike of stories about dumpy, emotional, middle-aged women struggling to find themselves. I can’t say that the prose itself was particularly memorable but the Hayman family, and their secrets, will stick with me for quite a while.
The title of the book refers to an enigmatic character in the fictional series of children’s books which hold the plot together. Mr Toppit himself is a dark and mysterious figure who lives in the woods where Luke Hayseed (the Christopher Robin-ified Luke Hayman) has all sorts of adventures. People in the novel speak of Mr. Toppit the way one might refer to Lord Voldemort or Marley’s Ghost. If there was one aspect of the novel which didn’t quite grab me, it would have to be the portrayal of the Hayseed Chronicles. They seemed like a mixture of the Narnia series, Winnie the Pooh, and Grimm’s fairy tales; if they truly existed they might in fact turn out to be wonderful, but as a major factor of this novel’s plot they weren’t real enough. Walk-on characters consistently mention how influential the books were on their childhood, at one point they purportedly save lives on a hijacked plane, but at no point is the reader given a chance to understand why everyone in Charles Elton’s world loves the series so much. Why are The Hayseed Chronicles as popular as Harry Potter and as well loved as Peter Rabbit? There are a few interesting “excerpts” in Mr Toppit but it is sometimes hard for an author to invent what claims to be great literature without sounding forced. I had a similar problem with Tanya Egan Gibson’s novel How To Buy A Love Of Reading. (For the record, I liked Mr. Toppit way more.)
The tag-line on my library’s copy of Mr Toppit reads “Once upon a time a book broke a family.” I’m not sure Charles Elton managed to convince me of the book’s power, but he certainly invented an intriguing, funny, and often infuriating family of characters who can easily carry the weight of the book on their own. Even the characters I wanted to punch in the face like the pathetic Laurie, several greedy bastards in the film industry, and Lila the intrusive German illustrator perfectly illustrate the fundamental point of Mr Toppit; everyone wants to claim a special connection with the legacy left behind by someone who dies. In the end, despite my initial disappointment that Mr Toppit wasn’t about a dapper Victorian serial killer (an expectation that may have been entirely unfounded, though “Toppit” does call that image to my mind), I think that the novel succeeds in portraying the breakdown of a family that is at times hilarious, tragic, and consistently compelling.