The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry; Arrow Books Ltd, 1995; xi + 356 pp; $19.95 pbk

Readers familiar with Stephen Fry only for his TV comic appearances (A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder) may be surprised to meet him as author of a novel, and even more surprised that such a novel should be reviewed in New Zealand Skeptic. Squash your doubts — this book is full of paranormal mysteries to delight the skeptical reader.

The story is of the miraculous happenings at Swafford Hall, a country house in Norfolk; a cancer cure, a veterinary marvel, the transformation of an ugly duckling into a swan, the laying on of hands, general sorcery and the liberal dispensing of Reichian energy, ie “healing” in its widest sense, and definitely in quotation marks, all seem to be associated with the adolescent younger son of the house.

So, why should a novel about bizarre events at an English country house, written by a comic actor, be strongly recommended to this magazine’s readers?

It is impossible to be detailed without giving away the “whodunnit” aspects of the book. I can only ask you to accept my word that this is a greatly entertaining book, which at the same time has a serious message about the need for the skeptical attitude. It is a welcome contrast to the usual story of the paranormal, where the skeptic is portrayed as a head-in-the-sand ostrich, convinced of his stupidity only long after everyone else has recognised the truly paranormal nature of what is taking place.

The biographical note in the book says of Fry “His hobbies include cooking his god-children and leaving out commas.” Though surely not of a cannibalistic nature, Fry’s fascination with this curious relationship enters the story, where the god-daughter and god-son of the hippopotamus are central.

And so to the beast himself, Ted Wallace, burned-out poet, drunken journalist, just dismissed, as the story opens, for writing a scurrilous review of a play by a popular dramatist. He is, therefore, available to be sent to observe the miracles at Swafford as they happen, by the aforementioned god-daughter, healed leukaemia sufferer.

Many chapters consist of letters exchanged between these two (Haha, you Eng. Lit. students will exclaim, an Epistolary Novel). Put aside your prudish sensibilities when you pick up The Hippopotamus; the language is strong and fruity, and there is plenty of explicit sex of not only the hetero- and homo- type, but of the bestial also. Definitely not to be put in the hands of your traditional maiden aunt.

The plot of the story is tightly constructed, and the revelations in the final scene, though cleverly prepared for earlier, come as a succession of surprises. Fry’s writing is at times scatological, at others poetic, but always lively, with a writer’s enormous enjoyment in the use of words.

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