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The Death of Mungo Blackwell February 18, 2020

Posted by Phil Groom in Book Review, Books.
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The Death of Mungo Blackwell

The Death of Mungo Blackwell

Lauren H Brandenburg
ISBN: 9781782642916
Lion Hudson, 2019
Paperback, 304pp, £8.99

The Death of Mungo Blackwell is a gently humorous tale of a wealthy couple, Charlie and Velveteen Price and their young son, Gideon, who lost it all in a financial crisis, then found it all again in another world — the strange and peculiar world of the Blackwell family.

Charlie and Velveteen had it all: with Charlie flying high in a very well paid banking career, they enjoyed every accoutrement of a fashionable lifestyle, a magnificent period townhouse and family home in a respectable neighbourhood—or perhaps I should spell that ‘neighborhood’ for this is an entirely American tale—but bad investment decisions by Charlie brought them and their dreams crashing down to earth. Charlie had to find a new line of work, and Velveteen’s life as a socialite wife, entertaining and being entertained, was over. But what else could Charlie do? How could he salvage their lives, recover from their losses?

Salvage becomes the answer: ‘picking’ and ‘flipping’ secondhand goods. Think the TV shows ‘American Pickers’ or ‘Bargain Hunt’ and you’ll get the picture. But Charlie doesn’t scour the country for his picking: he discovers a town called Coraloo and its Flea Market owned and operated by the Blackwells, then moves in with the family and begins to build his new career around the Blackwells and their market.

Woven in—sequenced between and betwixt the modern day riches-to-(not-quite)-rags story—is the older tale of the Blackwell family’s eccentric and adventurous globetrotting ancestor, Mungo Blackwell, cobbler extraordinaire. Is it history or is it legend? Who can tell? But this tale informs the Blackwell family’s sense of identity and way of life, setting the scene for the modern tale’s development, for a series of comical clashes, crises and misunderstandings between them and their newly moved-in neighbours, the Price family.

Alongside this, a love of books—of Kipling in particular and of a fictional romance, The Heiress of DuMont—keeps the plot simmering along: Charlie loves Kipling and Velveteen imagines herself as Melba DuMont, the heroine of her romantic reading. Can Charlie acquire the collector’s edition of Kipling he longs for? Can Velveteen live up to the ideals she sees in Melba? And where does Granny, the crotchety old matriarch of the Blackwell family, fit into it all?

Eccentricity is the name of the game here—it would be remiss of me not to mention The Rooning, families living in camper vans as their home-schooled children play-act in the marketplace, and a longstanding feud between the Blackwells and another local family, the Tofts—but underlying everything is a deep search for meaning, acceptance and authenticity in a world of uncertainty and chaos.

The future will always be unpredictable, the past will always leave its residues, but the present—the now in which we live—is the moment to cherish, to treasure. Leaving the past behind, living without fear for the future and taking hold of each day as it arrives: that, for me, is the take-home message of this captivating and almost Pythonesque novel. Evermore unlikely twists and turns take the tale to a delightful and highly satisfactory ending: expect the unexpected as you read, enjoy and share.

As for me, I’m already looking forward to the sequel: The Marriage of Innis Wilkinson, due in October 2020.

Note: my thanks to Lion Hudson for providing a complimentary copy of this book for review.
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