Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Uncommon Reader.
By virtue of the medium, novellas need to pack a lot of punch into a relatively small space, much as short stories do. This clever, charming tale by Alan Bennett certainly succeeds. I don't usually read novellas, or short stories, because I personally find them lacking in character development and depth, yet Bennett gets around that fault by simply writing a fictional work about one of the best-known characters in the modern world – Queen Elizabeth II.
In a nutshell, the Queen discovers the bookmobile. Chasing after one of her incorrigible corgis, she dashes into the subtly parked mobile library. Once there, feeling a tad awkward and out of place, she feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Never let it be said that the Queen doesn't know her duty! However, in doing so, she sets off a chain of events that shakes the palace to its core. Can England survive?
In a mere 120 pages, this tongue-in-cheek story leads the reader by the nose into the world of reading, queenly style. We are introduced to the stuffy and humorless equerries of the Queen's staff, and the bizarrely funky gay kitchen lad Norman Seakins, who becomes the Queen's guide to the world of reading, literature, authors and more. We experience, albeit secondhand, the struggles of the staff to adapt to the new reading Queen, including such august personages as the Prime Minister, the queen's private secretary and Prince Phillip.
Moreover, in spite of ourselves, we are educated, or at least reacquainted, with writers as diverse as Cecil Beaton, Dylan Thomas, Charles Dickens and Dick Francis. All are grist for the Queen's mill, and her newly discovered joy of reading. But horrors – it is not enough simply to read... one must take notes, and comment upon books you have read, mustn't one? A desperate effort to distract her from her interminable reading, a hint is proffered that the Queen consider writing her memoirs. "Start off in the middle. Chronology is a great deterrent," the decrepit and smelly Sir Claude suggests. The palace breathes a collective sigh of relief, and the Queen seems to be herself again. How disillusioned they are bound to be...
Alan Bennett is a well-known British writer and dramatist. His style of humor is bitingly clever and sneaks up on the reader, so reading this slim tome in bed with your partner sleeping peacefully is not suggested – snorts of appreciation and outright guffaws of amusement are likely to ensue when reading this remarkably funny book. There are many hidden literary gems ensconced in these pages, and the list of authors the Queen samples is remarkable.
The reader must always keep in mind that this is fiction, so the extremes of personalities presented, and the actual character of the Queen, are merely fodder for Bennett's storytelling. The last line of the book is so shocking that the reader wants to gallop back to the beginning, and read it all over again. And I hope you will, for this book deserves to be kept, shared with others, and enjoyed again and again.