The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney
Mortmain focuses on the lives and families of three men who meet regularly to play chess in a small town in New Zealand between the wars: Edward Wilson, the local lawyer, troubled my financial and sexual worries; Euclid Wrench, the younger son of an earl, a man so obsessed with the classical world that he insists his children speak Ancient Greek one day a week; and Te Mara, the local Maori chief, who treasures an empty box that his grandchildren believe holds a medal awarded to their dead father during the war.
With a forensic eye for detail, Judy Corbalis burrows deep into the life of the community, uncovering the secrets that everyone hides, the lies that they tell themselves and others. Ethel, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, could be speaking for the author when she says, ‘there often aren’t any proper rules. But everything’s really only layers, isn’t it?’
This is a novel about the way the dead hand of the past stifles expectations and snuffs out possibilities. The picture of inter-wars colonial life that it paints is claustrophobic, compelling but ultimately optimistic as the younger generation struggle to find their own solutions to the limitations of their society. Along the way idealism must be brought down to earth and prejudices discarded.