"... or how a vain ventriloquist's dummy uses his hypnotic powers to transform polite audiences and to revolutionise the land."
The scene is modern London at the home of Todd Valentino Prince (or Uncle Todd, as we know him), a failing magician and a Punch and Judy man. Enter Marvello Simpson: a vain, charming and mysterious ventriloquist's dummy, who aims to revolutionise the world.
Marvello Simpson and the Lost Uncle, written by Mary Sullivan, is the tale of Marvello's improbable arrival into the once-humdrum world of Uncle Todd, Elizabeth, Johnson and Alex.
Uncle Todd's conjuring shows for children were failing: in his heart, he wanted nothing more than to play Punch and Judy shows by the sea at Heymouth. His son Johnson, his niece Elizabeth and nephew Alex (the narrator) assist in his shows. His greatest magic act involved "George, The Disobedient Dog" who completes his acts by biting Uncle George on the ankle and holding up the hoop for Todd to jump through. George's acts became more famous than Uncle Todd himself, and he became desperate.
When the proprietor of a local magic shop insists that he take a sapient, sentient doll named Marvello, Uncle Todd jumps at the chance to spice up his act. He tricks Marvello into performing with him at the local school fete for free.
Marvello Simpson has other plans.
Marvello Simpson and the Lost Uncle teaches children about language:
"Have you noticed," said Elizabeth, "Marvello speaks when Uncle Todd or Johnson holds him, or when he's by himself, but not when I do, or Alex?"
"It's in the blood," said Uncle Todd, "ventriloquism, prestidigitation . . . "
"And pomposification," added Marvello."
It teaches children about gender equality:
"Could you do my job?" Atlas asked Miss Snipe, rippling his muscles.
"Probably," she replied. "What does it involve?"
"I tear up telephone directories," said Atlas.
"I'd tear mine up a page at a time," said Miss Snype. "It would have the same effect, but it seems a very silly thing to do."
It teaches children about list humour:
"Hey Presto!" said Uncle Todd hopefully, and drew from the top hat six red and blue handkerchiefs firmly tied together with reef-knots, and in an unbroken chain, a pair of football socks in our school colours, a check tablecloth, three yellow dusters, a Manchester United scarf, a skull-and-crossbones flag, a tea-cloth with a very rude verse printed on it, and last of all what looked very much like Mrs Fanshaw's Union Jack bikini.
Marvello Simpson and the Lost Uncle is almost a children's book: it's a darkly humourous precursor to the black world of Lemony Snicket and the gritty universe of Roald Dahl. At 91 pages (including illustrations), any young bibliophile could enjoy the book in an afternoon. It is also a pleasant read for adults: Sullivan's style of humour does not require multiple layers to appeal to multiple generations.
Mary Sullivan, Marvello Simpson and the Lost Uncle
Evans Brothers Limited, London: 1979
: 0 237 45502 1