Just before Christmas I read The Underground Man by Mick Jackson, which had been on my Kindle for a while, and which I was determined to read before my new Christmas books were unwrapped. It was a really surprising and wonderful book.
It follows the life of ‘His Grace’, the Victorian fifth Duke of Portland, over six months, as he descends into eccentricity in his stately home in Worksop in the Midlands, beneath which he has built a vast network of underground tunnels, which he likes to ride along in his carriage, occasionally popping up above ground to surprise the local villagers. The Duke is intrigued by life and is constantly asking those who work on his vast estate all sorts of questions about how things work. The locals are puzzled by these enquiries, but whilst some find him alarming, others seem to take his unexpected visits in their stride.
The Duke is plagued with a range of ailments, which have him firing his doctor, experimenting with local suggestions from post mistresses and village healers, and his poor digestion means he often takes to his bed, where many of his flights of fancy are dreamed up. He seems to be descending into a kind of madness, preferring more and more to stay at home or to only venture out underground. Then suddenly a trip to Edinburgh is planned for him and his valet and he sets off on the train preparing to meet Professor Bannister, an expert in trepanning – a surgical intervention that involves drilling a hole into the human skull. When the Duke returns home and starts experimenting on himself his staff can only wonder exactly what he is doing locked away in his rooms.
This deeply original book gripped me from start to finish and it very much deserved to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997.