ANTHONY O’NEILL Dr Jekyll & Mr Seek. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
An elegant and entertaining coda to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Anthony O’Neill’s novel opens with a description of London that evokes a sort of Dickensian city and also presages the subsequent blurring and obliteration of the truth experienced by the main character:
A sulphurous yellow fog, so thick it muffled the chimes of the Sunday church bells, had fastened overnight to London and refused to be dislodged by even the stiffest of breezes. It smothered domes and spires, blurred chimneys and gables, smudged walls and windows, and altogether turned the city into an immense spectral museum …
This sets the scene for a gloomy and unsettling experience for Mr Utterson, Dr Jekyll’s friend and lawyer. It is seven years since the disappearance of Dr Jekyll, who can now be presumed dead, and Mr Utterson is contemplating, with some grateful satisfaction, inheriting Jekyll’s house and property and becoming the benefactor of Nora Bryant, Jekyll’s ex-lover. However, a seeming imposter appears, claiming to be Dr Jekyll, and establishes himself in the house that Utterson had so recently relished the thought of gaining.
Mr Utterson knows that this cannot be the true Dr Jekyll as he has his confession, and knows that Jekyll died with Hyde, yet this charming and plausible person is readily accepted by all his former acquaintances and friends.
Anthony O’ Neill’s polished style carries all the ambience of Victorian manners. There is a distinct echo of the original story’s studied reticence and pace as we witness Utterson’s increasing dismay and confusion. He frenziedly tries to find support among those who had known Dr Jekyll and becomes increasingly unbalanced as they appear to happily accept that Jekyll has returned and to believe the story that explains his absence.
There is a faint hint of a very modern worry that readers might respond to; that of the fluidity of the personality and the fear of identity theft. But this is not presented explicitly and the prose remains charmingly formal in a rather Victorian style, even as Utterson becomes increasingly affected by his situation:
The victim of a brazen fraud, he knew from his legal experience, is someone who feels uniquely violated. The arrogance of the fraud, the sheer cunning necessary to facilitate it and above all the very personal aspect of the deed – these alone were enough to make any victim feverish with rage.
The story is really an exposition of the impact an idée fixe can have on the most upright and sensible mind. Utterson is brought low by the compulsion to make sense of something he knows cannot be true. Even when he finds evidence that supports his belief that the new Dr Jekyll is an imposter and criminal he is convinced that he will not be believed:
And finally they would say that Utterson had proved himself to be entirely unreliable. They would recall his false accusations and preposterous theories. They would sneer at his absurd insistence that Jekyll and Hyde were the same man. They would murmur about the vast inheritance of which he stood to be deprived. They would encourage Poole to recount details of his erratic behaviour.
This is an ingenious but rather sad story delivered in an engagingly nostalgic and charming style – even the statement of Teddy Guest, a clerk in Uttersons’s legal firm, who records Utterson’s subsequent experiences once he has proved to himself that his beliefs are correct, is expressed with Victorian formality. There is also a rather witty final twist.
Anthony O’Neill Dr Jekyll & Mr Seek Xoum Publishing 2017 PB 232pp $24.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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