In The Dark Woods

A review of Mr. Toppit by Charles EltonMr. Toppit
Former literary agent, Charles Elton, began writing his first novel 15 years ago after learning of AA Milne's son, Christopher Robin Milne's, utter disdain for the literary fame thrust upon him in the wake of Winnie the Pooh. The idea of unwanted notoriety had piqued his interest, but the story didn't truly germinate for him until the advent of the Harry Potter series when it became evident that a children's book could still take the world by storm. Mr Toppit, Mr. Elton's debut novel, is the result of these convergent phenomena.

In Elton's book, it's the "Hayseed Chronicles" that have become worldwide bestsellers. Along the lines of the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, the books written by ex-screenwriter and film director, Arthur Hayman of London, feature a nine year old boy, a magical realm called the "darkwoods", and a mysterious Wizard-of-Oz-like figure, the eponymous Mr Toppit, who lives there. Mr Elton alternates the narration point of view between many main characters throughout the tale, chief of whom are: Luke Hayman, Arthur's son, on whom the Luke of the books is based; Laurie Clow, an overweight DJ at a Modesto, California hospital radio station, who, desperately seeking a break from her unmanageable, nursing home bound mother, decides to take a holiday in London; and Rachel, Luke's troubled older sister, the black sheep who becomes obsessed with her father's tomes, which while immortalizing her brother, so obviously ignore her. Not until Laurie, through a mishap of fate, becomes inexorably entwined with the Hayman family, do events conspire to profoundly change all three character's lives.

Mr Elton's book asks the question: can a mere work of literature, and children's literature at that, have a sustaining affect on people's lives. We know it can certainly change an author's life to some extent, look at J.K. Rowling for example, but besides the obvious monetary gains a runaway bestseller may provide, how may it affect the author and their family. There is, as Charles Elton is aware, what one may call the Christopher Robin effect, which is visited upon Luke here, but what about the other siblings? How are they affected? And how about dedicated fans, in this case Laurie? We remember sadly the case of Mark David Chapman and his obsession with Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Arthur's Mr Toppit books have a transcending effect on Laurie, vaulting her into a career as a famous television talk show host; and in turn she becomes the Oprah-like catalyst for their enormous popularity.

However, not everyone happens to be willing to accept such notoriety, as we've seen with author and perceived literary snob Jonathan Franzen; and not everyone handles fame well. For Luke, forever being identified as the real Luke Hayseed of the books made for a disruptive and uncomfortable adolescence. But for Rachel, the obsessive and unrequited relationships she loses herself in find her, at the start of the story, catatonic in a drug rehab. The real Darkwoods, adjacent to the Hayman property about an hour outside of London, has, over the years, become a tourist haunt for many of the book's devotees, but to the Hayman children it is still the home of the omniscient Mr Toppit, the magical character of the books, the unforgiving yet guiding force behind heroic Luke Hayseed. In the end, the specter of Arthur's Mr Toppit still looms large in the Hayman's lives. While, like some deity, offering them the healing embrace of forgiveness and co-existence, it demands their sustaining strength in return.

Charles Elton crafts an offbeat and engrossing tale for much of this, his first major work. Narration through many points of view can be tricky; the book loses momentum at times, yet picks up the pace where it most matters. To his credit, the author manages to take a rather quirky premise and make his readers care about it. He leads us into the dark but gives us enough light to find our way out. I guess that is all you can ask of a good storyteller.

~Book Jones~   4 stars

Click the link below to read Chapter One of Mr Toppit