Words on Words: Stefan Bachmann and The Peculiar

9 mins read

Today we are excited to feature a truly exceptional new book by the young and talented Stefan Bachmann. We’ll start out with a review of the book and then step into an interview with the author, who was kind enough to provide answers from Switzerland where he attends a music conservatory.

If we were to adapt Plato’s chariot allegory to a novel we could probably agree that the two horses should remain rational, moral impulses tethered on the left, and irrational passions on the right. We may also agree with keeping Plato’s charioteer, intellect (or reason). What we might find insufficient is the lack of a fourth quality, which we would ascribe to the harness, and that would be style. Few books bear out this principle more than Stefan Bachmann’s debut novel The Peculiar. One does indeed find oneself “marveling at how beautifully an unexpected metaphor slip(s) into place, injecting further vitality into the story.” In the debased world of a 19th century London which has consumed but not erased an incursion from the realm of the fae, style is both transformative and dangerous.

The smug, philistine London upper class, and the vengeful, simmering Sidhe trapped in this foreign mortal landscape, all fail, by design, to evoke sympathy in the reader. Lead characters Bartholomew, a young changeling, and Arthur Jelliby, a foppish Member of the Upper House of Parliament, are set against the fatal scheme of the only Sidhe Member of the House of Lords, High Chancellor Mr. Lickerish. The great strength of the book lies in its imaginative power, for its deeply evocative phrases reinforce the subtle power of the faerie world. Everything about The Peculiar whispers that it is so much easier to stay asleep and passive under the sway of dark and questionable currents. The struggle of all three protagonists, Bartholomew, Mr. Jelliby, and Mr. Lickerish, are heightened by this mesmerizing backdrop. How difficult it is to act, to come fully awake in this world – the reader rises energetically into this void.

The Peculiar is a gripping and satisfying read. Its sense of the fae, of dangerous bridges from one realm into the other, is both traditional and authentic. An earlier reviewer asked, “At what age, I wonder, are children ready to enter a world with little hope and no humor, no matter how skilfully described?” Many children spend time in such worlds without having asked to enter, and whether they were ready or not. The Peculiar offers those readers both company and a sense of power.

Kenny: Arthur Jelliby appears to be particularly resistant to Magic. Is that due to his character traits, being obtuse, good hearted, particularly mundane? Is he peculiar in some other sense of the word?

Stefan: Interesting question! I guess he is a little bit resistant to magic, though I don’t think it’s because he’s mundane. The human and faery factions are probably much more mundane than he is, in that they represent the age-old extremes of nature vs. industry, passion vs. reason, etc. Mr. Jelliby, on the other hand, is spoiled and lazy, and when the book starts he hasn’t even bothered forming an opinion in one direction or the other. I think he represents a sort of middle ground, and maybe faery magic has more effect on the extremes than on the things in between.

I do think that because he is so neutral, he’s particularly suited for hero status. As you noted in your kind review, neither the human population nor the faery population is very sympathetic, and that was definitely the point. You’re never going to see the whole picture from one side or the other. It’s like the two groups are standing on either side of a wall, shouting at each other, and they can hear what the other is shouting back, but they can’t understand it because they can’t see through the wall. They can’t see why the other people are shouting the things they’re shouting. But if you’re in the middle, you’re on top of the wall. One would hope. Or else you’re stuck in the mortar and all wishy-washy, but if you’re Mr. Jelliby, and a hero, then you’re on top.

Kenny: Do you have favorite books on the fae which informed your vision of them? (For example, if you’ve read Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter is it true that it’s non-fiction in the main?)

Stefan: I haven’t read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, but growing up I was constantly reading some sort of folklore, or Tolkien, or Narnia, or some other legend-infused fantasy. I’m sure they all influenced me in one way or another. In recent memory, I really loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke. I think it was the book that got me interested in the more earthy, scary kind of fairy-folk. Nowadays, most people still think of fairies as happy and glowy and song-singing, but historically they were really very sinister creatures.

Kenny: If the Peculiar were an herbal tea what would it be named? (Other than Peculiar tea!)

Stefan: Um, MOST DISGUSTING-TASTING TEA EVER, probably. I’ll give you the recipe: a half-cupful of stream water (faerys), a handful of peppermint leaves (humans), one tablespoon of grime (the main component of nineteenth-century London), one crow’s feather (magic), one teaspoon of clock oil (steampunk), a drop of blood (mystery), a few flakes of ash (tragedy), and some popcorn (character development and adventure and all that good stuff).

Sounds yummy, no? No. But you don’t have to drink the book, so yay!

Kenny: There is a remarkable feeling of stasis which permeates the book, making the malignant action of the story seem set almost against a canvas rather than a living landscape. We know that the opening of the first door into Bath ultimately debased the fae who were trapped in the mortal world. Did this intermingling debase the mortal population as well?

Stefan: It probably brought out the worst in the Victorians, let’s put it that way. I definitely wouldn’t want to be either a human or a faery during the period when the story takes place. But from a writing standpoint, the contrast between the stiff-upper-lip English and the wild faerys was really interesting to me. Usually in books, the two only mix in small quantities, with a human going to faeryland or a faery going to human-land. So I thought it would be fun to write a book where these two polar opposites were forced together on a large scale and had to form a society, however wobbly.

Kenny: If you could take one element of the Peculiar and cause it to be in our world what would it be?

Stefan: That’s really hard! I’m pretty sure I wrote everything I ever liked into this book. So, hmm. Steampunk would be too messy and coal-spewing for earth. And magic is too tricksy. I’d have to say the snail cabs. They’re these monstrous snails with seats and tents on top of their shells. Because, I mean, who wouldn’t want to go somewhere in a snail cab? You’d never feel in a hurry again.

Kenny: Thanks so much Stefan!

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