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Book Review: Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus

Jul 15, 2017

"So is that why you came here, then? Just to pour cold water all over us? Just to sneer up your snotty sleeve? If you can't take it seriously, why try and ruin our happiness?"

You might be forgiven for thinking that Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus--a 1994 novel and now a theatrical release--is a British comedy of manners featuring a cantankerous, cynical drunk. But the novel itself, written in Fry's delightfully brilliant voice, is actually a skeptical whodunnit involving alternative medicine.

The hippopotamus of the title refers to protagonist Ted Wallace, a poet and former drama critic, who is hired by his god-daughter to investigate miraculous happenings at the country mansion of Ted's rich friend. The god-daughter had leukaemia and visited the grand ole house in Norfolk... and she became cancer free, much to the puzzlement of her physicians. How was she healed?

The writing is simply superb, as any fan of Stephen Fry's might imagine, with Ted Wallace as a crustier, more cynical alter ego who serves up the kind of witty repartee we have come to expect from the author himself.

But it is the novel's late focus on skepticism and rationality which really made me proud. While the main character does exhibit the traits of a good skeptic in investigating the matter, I will not reveal whether or not the story itself takes place in the real world or in one in which magic exists, and so whether or not Ted's cynicism is proven right in the end. But goodness me (as Stephen Fry would say), how refreshing it is to see a story tackle head-on the desire of people to believe in reassuring nonsense, as well as the power of delusion and the spurring of its growth through confirmation bias. The Hippopotamus achieves all this, and still manages to incorporate dirty limericks and a gripping subplot involving anti-Semitism and what it means to be British.

So, if Ted's god-daughter was miraculously cured of her cancer, how was she cured? The answer (and I had to put the book down twice in delightful disbelief) is both shocking and sad, and is wrapped in such enjoyable lines of dialogue that I will recommend Stephen Fry's The Hippopotamus to every skeptic out there and to anyone who wishes to read a jolly good romp of a book.


(As a side note, I wasn't aware that Fry was also a novelist. He has also written about a compulsive liar who enjoys making up stories about espionage; an alternative history in which Hitler never existed; and a modern adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo. Some things to look forward to in the near future....)