Review: Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death

Posted by Chloe Buckley on November 24, 2014 in Reviews tagged with , , , , , , ,

Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death

by Chris Riddell

Macmillan 2014

ISBN-10: 0230759823

ISBN-13: 978-0230759824

 

Last year, I was delighted to review Chris Riddell’s Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse, winner of the 2013 Costa Children’s book award. Ghost of a Mouse eschewed the ‘hard issues’ normally associated with award-winning children’s fiction, providing a delightful and witty rewriting of classic gothic tropes. The sequel, Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death, published earlier this year, takes the reader even further away from serious fare, with more jokes, more ridiculous puns and more good-natured jibes at figures from nineteenth century history and fiction. Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death promises hyperbole and humour through incongruity, acknowledging in its title not only classic gothic fiction, but middlebrow detective fiction of the early twentieth century.

Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death

Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death

All traces of the trauma hinted at in the first Goth Girl novel, in which a child grieving for one parent is emotionally neglected by the other, are effaced in A Fete Worse than Death, which opens with the titular ‘Goth Girl’, Ada Goth happily reconciled with her distant father, Lord Goth. The family home, Ghastly Gorm Hall, is in the midst of preparations for the annual village fete, which will – this year -play host to the Ghastly Gorm ‘bake-off’. Famous patisserie chefs from near and far crowd in Ada’s kitchen, perfecting their creations ready for judging day: Mary Huckleberry bakes a Young Victoria Sponge in the shape of the Brighton Pavilion, Huckleberry’s manservant, Hollyhead, produces a Liverpool strawberry roll, complete with miniature Liver bird; The Hairy Hikers construct a gigantic Geordie scone; Nigellina Sugarspoon makes an oversized  fondant; whilst bad tempered Gordon Ramsgate’s work of art, the ‘Nightmare in the Kitchen’ chocolate cake goes up against Heston Harboil’s ‘plum pudding in danger’. Meanwhile, sinister forces make nefarious plots that threaten Ghastly-Gorm’s residents.

Hollyhead and Huckleberry, or, as they are better known, Paul Hollywood and Mary  Berry of The Great British Bake-Off

Hollyhead and Huckleberry, or, as they are better known, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry of The Great British Bake-Off

The Bake-off scenario engenders a striking array of pastiches, puns and references; from Romantic poets to Pre-Raphaelite painters; from vampires to TV chefs; from Agatha Christie-style domestic detection to international espionage. The setting of the ‘Bake-off’ also signals that Goth Girl has dusted off the remains of the gloomier aspects of gothic fiction for something altogether lighter and sweeter, and, furthermore, that its targets for affectionate parody are not limited to the literary realm. Riddell may risk the novel seeming dated in years to come with the choice to reference a current cultural phenomenon, The Great British Bake-off, but this risk itself shows the democratic nature of parody as it is employed here: All kinds of cultural forms jostle together – the literary with the popular, high culture with middlebrow fiction, poetry and painting with television, the very current with the canonical – and no single form takes precedence or dominance over any other. All forms are treated with the same mixture of canonizing homage and gentle mockery. The democratic nature of Ada Goth’s ‘attic club’, a community of mystery solving children that observes the individual talents and freedoms of each of its members, holds sway throughout Goth Girl. It’s a democratizing gesture that erases the ‘different levels’ argument usually applied to these kinds of fictions. The ‘different levels’ argument holds that whilst children will enjoy the story, adults will laugh at the jokes. Everything in this novel is offered up for a parodic reading and reader competency, whether that of the adult or child, literature scholar or bake-off addict, is generously constructed within the text: these jokes are for everyone’s enjoyment.

 

The framing parody that plays host to the mystery – the Ghastly Gorm Bake-off – also indicates the middle-brow origins of gothic fiction, and argues for a connection between literary works, which have been canonized by the academy, and current popular culture. The knowing, and rather terrible, pun on Fete / Fate signals this connection and the kind of gothic Riddell is interested in. Indeed, Goth Girl can be placed into a tradition of middlebrow Gothic parody, which stretches all the way back to Northanger Abbey (1817), but which had a hey-day in the interwar period. Fete Worse than Death recalls such works as Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm (1932), Rachel Ferguson’s The Brontës Went to Woolworths (1931), and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle (1949). Though the aesthetics of Goth Girl remain resolutely rooted in classic Gothic fiction and late Romantic poetry, the village Fete setting simultaneously places this novel into an early twenty-first century canon of middle-brow, domestic fiction. Riddell also delights by revisiting and engaging in a literary form dominated by female writers, in a climate in which domestic, romantic, or parodic gothic fiction is often dismissed by critics.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Mysteries, Book 1), by Alan Bradley (2009)

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia de Luce Mysteries, Book 1), by Alan Bradley (2009)

The parody in A Fete Worse than Death is not dismissive towards the middle-brow or the domestic. On the contrary, it revels in the ‘twee’ in preference to the traumatic. Indeed, the ‘mystery’ and nefarious plotting surrounding the bake-off turns out to be something of a side-show to the novels series of witty puns, well-crafted set pieces, and gorgeous illustrations. Though Goth Girl shares many characteristics with, and may even have been influenced by, Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series (2009 – present), which presents another ‘goth’ mystery solving heroine, living in a crumbling aristocratic pile, solving murders and mysteries in a post-war rural community, mystery solving itself takes something of a back-seat in Riddell’s second novel. Compared to Flavia de Luce, there is very little threat, the barest hint of trauma, and no real darkness. This difference, however, does not mark Goth Girl as inferior, since it is self-reflexive about its sweetness and light aesthetic. The array of sweet treats on display at the bake-off, as well as the appearance of ‘The Brotherhood of Twee-Raffelites’ at the fete offer an unabashed indulgence in feel-good humour and light-hearted wit. That is not to say that Goth Girl’s offerings are insubstantial. Quite apart from its democratizing use of parody, Goth Girl opens itself up to a queer reading in the developing relationship between Ada and fellow attic club member, Emily. It also allows readers to explore alternative narrative forms and perspectives, offering a wordless account of the events of the novel in its appendix, in the mini novel, ‘Biography of a Bear’. I hope that there are many more instalments of Goth Girl still to come, and I look forward to following up the developments that have emerged in this second novel as Ada Goth grows up. Hopefully, the bizarre and wonderful vignettes of life at Ghastly Gorm Hall will continue to entertain readers. Goth Girl and the Fete Worse than Death is such a sumptuous treat, both as a beautifully produced artefact, and as a novel, that it’s hard to resist gobbling it all up in one go…

The Ghastly Gorm Bake-Off Chefs - all illustrations by Chris Riddell

The Ghastly Gorm Bake-Off Chefs – all illustrations by Chris Riddell

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