Somehow or other I've never actually read Alan Bennet, I've listened to him on Radio 4 and the like plenty of times, but never opened one of his books (which is probably why I get him mixed up with Arnold Bennett) but this book turned up as a reading group choice so I had to take the plunge.
I had of course heard no end of excellent things about 'The Uncommon Reader' and even picked it up a few times but had one big reservation about it.- I don't on the whole like books that take a real person/personality and put them in a fictional setting, I feel the same way when authors borrow other writers characters too, regardless of the quality of the writing. Using the Queen as a character is just one of the challenges that Bennett throws in.
As it goes this is an excellent book; as the Observer quote on the front has it - it's 'a masterpiece of comic brevity'. For most of the time it reads in a way that would have me describe it as pleasant, nice, cosy... But Bennett lulls his reader only to spring traps on them, he doesn't do it often - he doesn't need to, but the occasional, and still mild, obscenity shakes you out of a certain complacency that the rest of the book encourages.
This is also a book that wants to be reread a few times, for such a slim volume there's a lot packed in. It worked best for me as a meditation on reading - why we do it and what it does to us, something Bennett has plenty to say about some of it a little ambivalent which is interesting in itself. Reading opens up a whole world to the Queen but it also destroys all her pleasure in her old routine and is detrimental to the execution of her duty. All around her hate and fear the effect books are having, the time they take and the attention they demand. It's interesting to consider reading as a challenging, even an aggressive, activity - I'm not entirely convinced that it would upset people so very much.
It's definitely a provocative book, is also one that is far better than I expected - and I didn't go into it with low expectations, but... My initial reservations still stand. Using real characters makes me uncomfortable, I understand that it wouldn't work nearly so well if it wasn't the Queen, and not just from the comic perspective, but it strikes me as unfair on some level to take a woman who's life is so public and invent a private life for her (no matter how flattering the portrayal is). On the other hand I feel that the very few hours that it took to read this book were some of the best spent of my reading year so far and I will now have to get a copy of my own.