While its soft, pencil-drawn illustration may give Eustace the impression of being dour and depressing, nothing could be further from the truth. Hidden amongst the grotesque characters and ethereal sketching is an riot of quirky, bawdy, farcical dark humour.
Eustace is a sickly 8-year-old, bed-ridden and given nothing to eat but a succession of watery broths. He pines for visits from his mother, though she gets migraines herself, and usually relies on the brusque, burly maid to deliver Eustace’s meals. His father can barely remember his name and his older brother is on the verge of heading off to fight one of the World Wars. He is, however, visited by a long succession of great aunts and uncles, who mollycoddle and spoil him, presuming he hasn’t got much time left.
This all changes, however, when Eustace finds his Uncle Lucien and business partner Paul, hiding underneath his bed. Uncle Lucy is on the run for fraud and embezzlement, and ends up hunkering down with Eustace. However, he has a few bad habits that he doesn’t seem able to kick, including smoking, drinking and hiring the services of prostitutes.
This could easily be a play, and a rather good one at that. The story is entirely set in Eustace’s bedroom, and Eustace talks to the audience throughout. The adults around him take this destruction of the fourth wall as an indication that Eustace has imaginary friends, but the reader remains acutely aware that they have a front-row seat at a startling and intriguing performance.
The art is beautiful. There’s a lightness of touch here, creating a mood that hits the pitch of the book perfectly. The characters’ skins look translucent, while their bones show through. They’re universally ugly too, with even the dolled-up prostitutes carrying themselves with an air of sorrow and fatigue.
It’s a beautifully ugly book. The characters are intense, the story is a roller coaster of insanity and the art gives it a further depth that brings everything together. Perfect.