When Sir Humphrey Miles Pinkerton Strange, Baronet and owner of a rundown rural estate on the border of England and Wales, dies without an heir his holdings and title pass to a distant American relative who is also named Humphrey.
The American, Humph, is an easy-going short order cook with no independent ambitions for grandeur. However, he becomes the “cuckoo” in Batch Magna’s nest when an old family friend he knows as Uncle Frank persuades him that there is money to be made by evicting the tenants and turning the estate into a vacation spot for American tourists.
The Cuckoos of Batch Magna is a lovely, meandering little tale that follows Humph as he travels to England to evict the house-boat dwelling tenants of his estate, a plan that suits his domineering fiancée very well. As pleasant as he is gullible, Humph happily wanders into a set of misadventures and unexpected relationships that change the way he views his duties as the 9th Baronet. At times, Humph is as hapless (and as endearing) as Toad of Toad Hall. There is often a feeling of “Wind in The Willows” at work here, but the story is definitely for adults.
Cuckoos is chock full of luscious descriptive language and fun character sketches. While I never laughed out loud, I often found myself smirking at a turn of phrase or a character description. It was just, quite simply, fun. One particular scene that took place in a muddy field still puts a smile on my face whenever I think of it on a dreary day. The humor is gentle, but it sticks.
The book has conflict, as all good books should, but it is a gentle conflict and you know that it absolutely must come right in the end somehow. How could it not when the new Squire (who just wants to be liked, after all) and the eccentric tenants he is intent on evicting are so made for each other? This novel certainly describes an old-fashioned rural Britain that doesn’t exist anymore. But it should. It really should.
When I think of books I’ve enjoyed with a rural UK setting, I think of MC Beaton and Alan Titchmarsch. By my reckoning, author Peter Maughan’s writing style has more in common with Kingsley Amis than either of those two. Don’t get me wrong here – I’m an MC Beaton fan and am currently reading my way through the full Hamish Macbeth series again. But I read MC Beaton for twenty or so minutes a night before I turn out the light and go to sleep. The Beaton books are formulaic and have no particular subtlety or beauty of language, so it’s easy to read a chapter or two when sleepy and pick the book up again later. Not so with The Cuckoos of Batch Magna. You’ll miss all the best stuff if you read this one when less than awake.
The author is very much a fan of the complex/compound/chock full of dependent clauses style of sentence construction. He writes grammatical but very, very, very long sentences. This may make the book difficult for some readers. You know your reading style; you will have to decide. Here is a passage that I happen to find gorgeous for its descriptive power, but which some readers may find a bit of a slog due to sentence length:
And the tall, star-shaped chimneys and gabled black and white timbers of Batch Hall, home to the Strange family for over four hundred years, set with Elizabethan ornateness in what was left of its park, its lawns, under horse chestnuts heavy with bloom, running down to the Cluny. And the castle, a fortress once against border incursions and the forces of Cromwell, open now to Welsh rain and rabbits, the archers’ loopholes in the ruined towers blinded with creeper, its red sandstone turning to coral in the sun.
My personal choice? I would have broken a number of the longer sentences into more manageable bites. However, by the time I was several chapters in, the writing hit a more comfortable stride and I no longer found myself being distracted by overly long sequences of words. I instead found myself tickled by the sweet, charming, loving way in which the story and characters are described.
Do I recommend this novel? Yes! Wholeheartedly. It’s lovely. There are sequels to the books but they have apparently been held up by the publisher, which is too bad. I’m quite looking forward to the continuing adventures of Sir Humph and his merry band of men and women.