Stephen Fry’s fiction: A look at all four of his novels

Stephen Fry is well loved around the world for many things – for his work on television and film, his writing and of course his charming personality and love for words and verbosity. As a friend once said: “Ah, Stephen Fry. Now there’s a man who knows how to construct a sentence.”

Considering this, I thought it would be fun to write about the four novels Stephen Fry has written over the years, because I have met many the Stephen Fry fan who was not even aware he had written any novels, let alone four. Furthermore, in my opinion at least, these stories are as good as one would come to expect from a man who simply revels in his own startling intelligence and wit.

The Liar

Published in 1991, The Liar was Fry’s first novel, and for many it appears to be his most autobiographical work of fiction (read this alongside his first two memoirs and you’ll see what I mean – if you are wondering about his memoirs, I will most certainly return to them in a later post). The book is centred around Adrian Healey, who goes through a public boys school and Oxford, before becoming a spy of sorts. Throughout this all, Adrian lies chronically, which makes him an unreliable narrator but also brings quite a lot of fun to the story, with revelations appearing suddenly out of nowhere as the book progresses, and old truths suddenly being declared a lie. For a debut novel, this is daring in both story and language, full of vulgarity that may shock and offend some, yet delivered with such eloquence it is frankly impossible not to be charmed by it all. Perhaps Fry’s funniest novel, though maybe not the best place to start with his fiction work.

The Hippopotamus

Fry’s second novel, published in 1994, was the first I read, and I was enticed by the blurb on the back of the book, which reads as follows:

“Ted Wallace is an old, sour, womanising, cantankerous, whisky-sodden beast of a failed poet and drama critic, but he has his faults too.
Fired from his newspaper, months behind on his alimony payments and disgusted with a world that undervalues him, Ted seeks a few months’ repose and free drink at Swafford Hall, the country mansion of his old friend Lord Logan.
But strange things have been going on at Swafford. Miracles. Healings. Phenomena beyond the comprehension of a mud-caked hippopotamus like Ted…”

Really, after reading that, buying this book immediately was inevitable and downright logical. The story is partly epistolary, as Ted reports back through letters to his sick god-daughter Jane on the various happenings at the mansion, including the arrival of other house guests searching out the supposed miracles occurring within. The writing style is perhaps more tame in this book than his first, though the story is still outrageously shocking and hilarious at points, and once again brimming with serious and intelligent undertones, as well. This is a good place to start with Fry’s books.

Making History

Fry’s third novel is arguably his best, and certainly his most ambitious. This alternate history story is also his longest, clocking in at close to 600 pages, and yet it is the sort of book which, once started, is difficult to put down until it’s finished. The story is set around Michael Young, a young historian who meets an ageing physicist obsessed with the horror and atrocities commited by Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. When the two of them discover a way to stop Hitler ever having been born, they follow through with their plan, thinking they will avert one of the world’s worst catastrophes, but when Michael reawakens he finds himself in the wrong country, in a world vastly different from the one in which he grew up, and, scarily, in a much darker and more frightening world too. Slowly Michael realises that this alternate history turned out far more horrific, in ways he could never have began to imagine. It was a daring line for Fry to take with this story, but he pulls it off convincingly, not taking any short cuts and not holding back at any points, and delivers a truly stunning and thought-provoking novel. This is definitely my favourite work of fiction by Fry, and I would highly recommend this to any history buffs out there.

The Stars’ Tennis Balls

This novel, published in 2000 (and with the title changed to Revenge in the United States), is Fry’s attempt at a psychological thriller, and was largely inspired by The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, being, essentially, a modernisation of that classic tale of revenge.  It begins in 1980, as seventeen year old Ned finds all the pieces of his life – education, work, even a beautiful girl – coming together perfectly. However, a few badly timed events lead his life in a completely different direction, and the novel instead follows this new phase of his life, and, eventually, the vengeance he seeks to make upon those who caused these changes in his life. While still funny, this novel is tinged with a sense of bitterness and anger which gives it a sizzling energy as you turn each page, and simply adds to the growing evidence that Fry is a master of the English language, and a genius of storytelling.

Have you read any of Stephen Fry’s novels? If so, what did you think? If not, do you think you would read them?