The Invention of Dr Cake by Andrew Motion

Once again the fickle hand of fortune has placed before me a book I had absolutely no intention to read before I was safely pensioned and with nothing better to do. Having asked my wife to pick two random numbers I counted off those unread piles and plucked The Invention of Dr Cake from the mess with something akin to distaste.  It’s not the only work by Motion that I possess, but so far it has the unenviable status of being the only work by Motion I have read. However, as someone who has a history of ruining things via an unrelenting prejudice, liberally applied to everything of which I have an ignorant or ill-informed disgust and/ or hatred, I would like to take a step back and for once be objective. I hate people who aren’t objective in their reviews.
Someone recently mentioned that in a former life, they had met erstwhile poet laureate Andrew Motion and found him a little stiff. Having had to pull him off stage at the Cheltenham Festival due to unnecessary waffling I might well have concurred. However, The Invention of Dr Cake is a whimsical novel, playful and suggestive, with a veritable Romantic feel and a satisfying completeness. It’s brevity provides counter-point to the lavish purple prose and pseudo-Romantic style of Dr William Tabor, and the premise, if left to the reader to uncover, is amusing and subtly diverting.
The problem is that it is book-ended by what I can only suggest are two passages to instruct the reader how to infer that the key conceit of the novel is exactly that which Dr Tabor and Mr Motion suspect and suggest respectively. No plot spoilers here (I know, I know, but if I did spoil it, there would be absolutely no point in reading it), but the joy is sucked out by two dry and brittle passages which could have served as an introduction and / or been left out completely in favour of a quick and potted history of Dr William Tabor and possibly the Romantic poets, for those of us who couldn’t give a tinker’s cuss for the struggling artist. Grandmothers, eggs and sucking the yolks out thereof springs unbidden to mind.
Motion once said of his own art that, “My wish to write a poem is inseparable from my wish to explain something to myself.” It seems he has extended this wish to the readers of his prose, and unfortunately it is most unwelcome.


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