‘One of the first things ninety-two-year-old Marian Leatherby overhears when she is given an ornate hearing trumpet is her family plotting to commit her to an institution. Soon, she finds herself trapped in a sinister retirement home, where the elderly must inhabit buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, endure twisted religious preaching and eat in a canteen overlooked by the mysterious portrait of a leering Abbess. But when another resident secretly hands Marian a book recounding the life of the Abbess, a joyous and brilliantly surreal adventure begins to unfold. Written in the early 1960s, The Hearing Trumpet remains one of the most original and inspirational of all fantastic novels.’
Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is as wonderfully odd and obscure as it sounds. The novel is amusing, sometimes startlingly so; it made me laugh aloud in a few places, which very few books manage to do. (I do have a sense of humour. Promise.) Whilst I wasn’t at all fond of the religious aspects, I found our protagonist Marian quite a character. She and her best friend Carmella are two great eccentrics, really. One never quite knows what they’re going to do next.
I would categorise The Hearing Trumpet as falling somewhere between magical realism and utterly fantastical; there are recognisable elements, but it often reads like what I imagine a strong drugs trip might do to one. There were, rather strangely, echoes of Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree for me here; read it, and you’ll understand why. There are also a few harks back to fairytales – ever so strange ones, but fairytales all the same.
The Hearing Trumpet is perhaps the epitome of Surrealist literature, and I have never read anything quite like it; the closest I have come to date is probably the work of Scottish author Naomi Mitchison, who is undeservedly neglected. The ending was even stranger than I was expecting, and verged upon the disturbing. My favourite quote from the whole is: ‘People under seventy and over seven are very unreliable if they are not cats’.
As a final thought, it was a wonderful surprise to discover that the introduction to the volume which I borrowed from the library was written by one of my absolute favourite authors, Ali Smith; her work is, as ever, fantastic, both fascinating and funny, and she set the tone of the whole perfectly.