title: Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig [support an independent bookseller and buy at Strand]
by: Russell Potter
source: I received an advanced reader’s copy from Penguin via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.
Premise: The author, Russell Potter, assumes the persona of “editor” is this novel, the (obviously) fictitious “found memoirs” of a sapient pig named Toby, the porcine embodiment of the phrase “knowledge is power.” The story itself is very sweet and follows Toby from his piglet-hood to adulthood. With the help of his human companion, Sam, Toby narrowly avoids the slaughterhouse and finds himself the main attraction of an animal circus where he is accidentally, then intentionally, taught to read. Over the course of his life, he trods the boards in London, studies at Oxford, and encounters luminaries such as Samuel Johnson, William Blake and Robert Burns. Not bad for a pig…I wish the “editor” himself were nearly as successful.
To really convey a sense of time and place, Potter appropriates the construct of historical diary. As I was reading, I kept having flashbacks to high school readings of The Dairy of Samuel Pepys…which was part of the problem. Historical diaries aren’t written to be read as novels; in Pepys’ diary, there are lots of entries that consist of events and descriptions of the day to day, which aren’t exactly the most riveting to read. Interesting: yes. Exciting: no. And unfortunately, Potters’ piece consists of a lot of listing of events, mostly of traveling. You know how there are entire passages of the Bible that read like “and ________ begat __________, who in turn begat ______ and _________”? I feel like there were entire stretches of the narrative that read like “from thence we traveled to __________ via _________, whence we happened upon the __________ Inn, and four miles hence is ____________, where we played but a fortnight ago.” I get it, Potter. You researched. You know stuff about English history. A little bit of that is fine to establish a sense of historical setting, but gets a tad tiresome after fifty pages or so. It became what the book was ABOUT, and the book was supposed to be about an intellectually curious pig.
And then there was the Random Capitalization. Once and a while, the Author, would choose to Capitalize important Nouns and Verbs, with the occasional Italics thrown in for good Measure. It felt real Schtick-y, real Quick.
Finally, the themes that Potter references are not new (what it means to be intelligent, man’s inhumanity toward man and nature, the danger of ignorance and assumption, etc). Which would be fine, if Potter had anything new or unique or particularly compelling to add to the subject. Unfortunately, he does not. I requested to read and review this book because, as a former teacher myself, I saw in the premise a lot of potential for classroom use in maybe 5th or 6th grade…it seemed like the type of piece that may serve as a side door into history, a piece that might complement some of the established classics. Alas, Potter has explored nothing in this book that Charlotte’s Web or Animal Farm hasn’t already tackled, and tackled FAR better. It felt to me like Potter got so caught up in the Style of the narrative that Substance suffered.
In all, I feel like he really just scratched the surface of the story he meant to write. Toby, as a character, was flat. Underneath all the name-dropping, the Ye Olde English-y font, and the excessive historical referencing, and damned TRAVELING, there really wasn’t much Story there.
Rubric rating: 3.5.