by Jonathan Barnes
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 057507941X
Date: 22 February, 2007 List Price £16.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
Gollancz continues their quest to bring the best in new British talent to your bookshelves. In Jonathan Barnes, they have found a wonderful and deliciously grotesque novelist. His début work, The Somnambulist is a delight and is reviewed this issue.
"An extraordinary tale of poetry, secret societies, traveling circuses and walking dead set in a richly realized Victorian London."
Some years ago I worked freelance for a time reading the slush pile of one of the main UK genre publishers – and let me tell you, it was a hell of an eye-opener! If you set aside the submissions that were handwritten in green crayon or the ones which had accompanying pictures of the writer's dog – whom the character of k'nick'nok, the space-faring robotic, sleuth-hound was based on, then what was left was still pretty depressing. Handwritten, poorly spelt, poorly conceived garbage was the order the day and even more depressing, was that there were tonnes of these "manuscripts" (and I use the term figuratively!) pouring into the offices of this publisher every week. Nevertheless, there are scores of stories in publishing relating the discovery of diamonds in this dirt – Neal Asher, now a renowned and much admired name in British SF, came to the attention of his publishers, Macmillan, via the slush pile. They have recently published a seventh Asher novel and have commissioned more, so it's safe to say they're happy with their discovery.
So why this preamble? Well, because The Somnambulist, the debut novel by British writer Jonathan Barnes was plucked from the teetering Gollancz slush pile and it is a glittering fictional gem indeed. So, to those writers without agents or anyone to recommended them or their work, it can still happen (though take heed of my tip - avoid sending in novels that are written in crayon!)
The tone of Barnes' novel is set very firmly within the opening paragraph. It reads thus…
Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre..."... this self-knowing, twinkle-in-the-eye aspect to The Somnambulist gives the novel a slyness that makes for highly entertaining reading, as does the central conceit, that being that the identity of our narrator is kept from us for quite some time.
The story itself concerns a notorious stage magician, one Edward Moon and his strange companion and assistant, the eponymous Somnambulist - a lean, mute giant of mysterious origins who seems to exist solely on milk! Moon himself is a dark and troubled hero and set against Barnes's wonderfully evocative and largely grotesque turn-of-the-previous-century London backdrop, the pair make for rather odd, fantastical protagonists. Add to this that Moon is a renowned amateur investigator and that he has certain proclivities that make the cocaine shots favoured by Mister Sherlock Holmes seem mere peccadilloes and this character mix seems a fertile one indeed.
The plot is fiendishly involved and skilfully rendered, particularly so given that this is not a thick volume. The story is told from many points of view, is deliciously indulgent, if not completely deviant and Barnes casually and confidently takes his time in pointing his readers to the exact nature of the threat that is at work here. Thus The Somnambulist is littered with vague conspiracies, bizarre murders, séances, carnival freaks, bearded prostitutes, spies dressed up as Chinamen and grotesqueries of almost every conceivable nature – well, we were warned!.
In terms of tone and character, The Somnambulist is a novel the like of which we've not really seen for some years. The marketing mentions contemporary works such as Alan Moore's The League of Extraordinary Gentleman and The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss and newer readers may relate to these citations – for me though, The Somnambulist is old school but in no way old fashioned. It puts me in mind of some mid-eighties Steampunk fiction in that it retains the pell mell, ever-so-slightly-tongue-in-cheek, anarchic momentum that drives novels like K.W Jeter's Infernal Devices (a book which bears the sublime subtitle "A Mad Victorian Fantasy") and Homunculus by James P Blaylock. Both these books (which I heartily recommend) seem to have faded as fashions in fiction have waxed and waned, but such madcap adventures in the cobbled alleys and gas lit streets of London – as indeed The Somnambulist most assuredly is – are always welcome reading for me. I fervently hope that The Somnambulist sparks a long overdue revival in this kind of crazy, pseudo-Victorian Steampunk fantasy… in my humble opinion, that would be a very good thing indeed!