Book review: Uncle Jack by Peter Somerville-Large

Peter Somerville-Large is a friend and contemporary of the late William Trevor, and attended the same school, St Columba’s College, before going to Trinity College Dublin.
Book review: Uncle Jack by Peter Somerville-Large

And like his friend, he has had an unconventional life, and after working in Afghanistan, he became a travel writer. Later he wrote about his home territory, Co Cork, in his classic, The Coast of West Cork, and other much-loved books.

Uncle Jack is his second comic novel and has every bit as much verve and invention as his debut, Mixed Blessings.

Reminiscent of the works of PG Wodehouse, but with a darker sense of humour, the novel is narrated by Uncle Jack’s nephew David, who is in line to inherit Mount Jewel, a large but dilapidated house and estate in Co Louth, which Uncle Jack (also known as Colonel Hilton) claims to be the fourth biggest house in Ireland.

The basement kitchen is the only warm place, as long as you wear gumboots because of the damp floor.

David’s parents died when he was young, and in time he will inherit the estate, as Uncle Jack has never married.

However, David’s idleness annoys Uncle Jack, who packs him off with a bundle of 50 pound notes to stay with his disgraced cousin Desmond in Australia: ‘Toughen up your character’, is the gruff explanation.

David and Jack share a wry turn of phrase, and have little time for the conventions of polite society.

David is having an idyllic time on Sydney Harbour, sharing cousin Desmond’s playboy lifestyle, when he is summoned back because Uncle Jack is on his deathbed.

Hardly has the coffin been ordered, when Uncle Jack makes the first of several miraculous recoveries: “Alas, my uncle’s health continued to improve,” writes David.

However, uncle Jack’s mental health is not so good. His decision to ‘liberate’ his livestock, by letting them roam the public roads, leads to a summons from the local sergeant, but it is a more serious matter when he is caught trying to burn down the house of the new rector, Hazel, whom David describes as one of ‘this new lot of bossy clergy persons’. Uncle Jack is so outraged by the appointment of a woman rector that he declares “I’ve a good mind to become a Roman Catholic”.

Uncle Jack’s arson leads him to Silver Meadows, a superior private nursing home run by the formidable Mrs Freebody. A nursing home may seem an unlikely setting for black comedy, but these are among the funniest scenes.

Uncle Jack seems to be playing the system quite cleverly, but after attacking a fellow resident, Lady Marsden, during a row about Lord Mountbatten, he is confined to the basement, and a punitive regime.

David is appalled at the way that old people are treated, and the money they pay for the privilege.

“What did nursing homes do with the old before television was invented?” he wonders, looking at the zombie-like residents staring at the huge set in the lounge.

Uncle Jack is saved by a clever Filipina nurse, Maria. After another miraculous recovery, he returns to Mount Jewel with Maria as his girlfriend, and she begins to knock the old place into shape.

Her family arrive to help out, and soon there are plans to turn Mount Jewel into a luxury hotel and golf course.

The object of the satire changes from the care of the elderly to the state of modern Ireland, as Maria and her family set off on a pilgrimage of the great Catholic sites of Ireland, starting with the grotto at Ballinspittle.

In a neat twist, Uncle Jack ends up back in Sliver Meadows, this time contented.

Somerville-Large’s elegant prose sparkles to the very end, keeping the reader consistently entertained.

Uncle Jack

Peter Somerville-Large

Somerville Press €15

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