Last night the Nosy Crow Reading Group met to discuss Anyone But Ivy Pocket, written by Caleb Krisp and illustrated by John Kelly, which We Love this Book describe as “funny and engaging […] sure to delight any reader who seeks adventure and mischief”.
This was one of those books that provoked a real debate amongst our reading group members, with a fairly even split between those who really liked it and those who did not: there was healthy, enthusiastic, and (to me, at least) sometimes surprising debate about what constituted its merits and its flaws.
One of the most immediately striking things about this book is its narrative voice: that of the irrepressible Ivy Pocket herself. Ivy’s voice asserts itself on every page of the book – it is an incredibly distinctive, stylised creation, and one gets the impression that Krisp began with Ivy’s voice and built a book around it.
The narrative voice lends the book a sort of marmite-quality: you will either love it or hate it, but it is impossible to ignore. For me, that narrative voice is the novel’s greatest success, and the thing that will carry a reader through the entire book – and overall, I think that our attendees enjoyed Ivy’s voice: we liked her delusions of grandeur, her (equally deluded) self-belief, and her over-the-top affectations. Krisp has noted in interviews that he owes a debt to Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp, and several of our members recognised this similarity.
Ivy’s voice is the source of much of the book’s humour, and to many of us, its comic potential was its greatest strength. Krisp’s use of repetition, in particular, worked well here: we liked the recurring uses of phrases like “all the natural instincts of…”, and the effect these phrases had in building layer after layer of delusion and absurdity. The narrative voice even, according to one of our attendees, gave the book the quality of a mock-epic pastiche, with hints of tragi-comedy (alongside Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, I suspect that another of Krisp’s influences has been Pope’s The Rape of the Lock).
This isn’t to say that the book’s narrative voice didn’t have its detractors, however: several of us found it irritating, one or two of the group did not find it terribly funny, and a few of us felt that it did not have “heart” – and that, subsequently, the overall experience of reading the book was a slightly cold one.
The unreliable narrator
The two words that seem to come up in every review, discussion and summary of this book are “unreliable narrator”. On the surface, Ivy seems like a quintessential unreliable narrator, and this was something that a lot of us liked about the book: several of our attendees found Krisp’s use of the trope funny, interesting and clever. A number of us also felt that the book did a very good job of introducing the idea of the unreliable narrator to a young audience: where some of us found the allusions to Ivy’s unreliability heavy-handed, others found them – like the very deliberate repetition – helpful and appropriate for a readership that may never before have encountered a narrator whose account cannot be taken at face value.
One or two of us were less than enchanted with this element of the book: one member said that while they usually enjoyed unreliable narrators and unlikeable characters, they were frustrated in this instance by what they found to be inconsistency – they felt that Ivy was only inconsistently unreliable, and that this undermined the effect.
And there are, we decided, valid questions to be asked about whether in fact this IS a book which strictly conforms to the necessary conventions of the unreliable narrator: Ivy deceives herself constantly, of course, but she does not really deceive the reader.
Typically I begin these blogposts with a warning that spoilers lie ahead, but I’m not sure how relevant this would be on this occasion: even now, after reading the book twice and discussing it for an evening, I’m not confident that I could satisfactorily relay the book’s plot.
The book’s actual story was not, it must be said, as praised by our group as it’s voice and humour were. Some of us felt that the book had too much plot, and a few of us did not love the introduction of supernatural elements to the story (in the words of one person, the book would have been better “if it stuck to being an Agatha Christie-style mystery”). A number of us found the ending frustrating (noting that it was very heavily setting up events for a sequel) and several of the group felt that the book lacked a strong narrative arc: that it was made up simply of a sequence of events, one after the other, that were not properly connected.
But the plot was not without its admirers: several people liked Krisp’s evocation of the period and genre, and a number of us enjoyed the book’s pantomime quality (one of our attendees said that they wanted to shout “it’s behind you!” at every situation that Ivy blindly walked into). And to at least one person, the book DID have a lot of heart – because they felt that it was about how life can be terrifying, and how Ivy eventually realises this.
So, a book that attracted both ardent defenders, and frustrated critics – but a striking, interesting debut, whatever the case.
The Nosy Crow Reading Group will be back in June to discuss My Brother is a Superhero by David Solomons. The event is currently completely booked, but if you’d like to add your name to the waiting list, or be notified about future events, email tom at nosycrow dot com, and I’ll add you to our mailing list.