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Monday, February 4, 2008

“The Somnambulist” by Jonathan Barnes

Order “The SomnambulistHERE
Read Reviews of “The Somnambulist” via Strange Horizons, Grasping For The Wind, SF Diplomat + SciFi Chick

In contemporary fiction, there is perhaps no historical setting more popular to play with than that of the 19th century Victorian era. An era that introduced such influential writers as Charles Dickens, William Thackery, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Robert Browning, Rudyard Kipling, Lewis Carroll, H.G. Wells, and so many others. It was also the time period when Charles Darwin’sThe Origin of Species” was published, when the blueprint for steampunk was established, when gothic fiction was revived and Jack the Ripper roamed the streets. And how can anyone think of such famous characters as Sherlock Holmes, Count Dracula, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, Oliver Twist and Wonderland’s Alice without thinking of that age? In short, the Victorian time period was, is, and will continue to be a fashionable backdrop for stories of all genres, such as “The Somnambulist” by first-time novelist Jonathan Barnes

Because of the Victorian London setting, an unconventional narrative, some stage illusions, and elements of gothic horror fantasy, “The Somnambulist” has drawn comparisons to the novels “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke and Gordon Dahlquist’sThe Glass Books of the Dream Eaters”; writers Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker; and the films The Illusionist and The Prestige, the latter of which is based on a Christopher Priest novel. As is most often the case with such comparisons, they are hardly accurate and more often than not end up creating false expectations for the reader. For instance, “The Somnambulist” is a much shorter (353 pages), faster-paced and more accessible read than either of Ms. Clarke’s or Mr. Dahlquist’s hefty and verbose tomes. And while one of the characters is a conjurer by trade, the novel really has nothing to do with magic tricks, except perhaps for the story itself which is driven by deception and where nothing is at it seems. I will allow that the prose at times and some of the darker aspects of Mr. Barnes’ imagination reminded me a bit of Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, but the author isn't nearly on the same level yet. Other than that and just a few superficial similarities, I found “The Somnambulist” to be a very singular reading experience, led mostly by the novel’s presentation.

You see our narrator is but a humble journalist who repeatedly breaks the fourth wall in addressing the reader and even warns us at the very beginning that the book has no “literary merit whatsoever”, that he is new to the “business of storytelling”, and that he will lie to us more than once over the course of the novel. So, while “The Somnambulist” is mostly told in a straightforward and chronological manner via multiple third-person point-of-views, the narrative is frequently interjected with amusing commentary and ominous foreshadowing. Personally, I really liked the narrator’s little ruminations and witticisms—they inject a certain playfulness that keeps the narrative invigorating—and just wish there had been more of them in the book, but Jonathan makes up for it when we learn who our narrator really is :)

Of course, before we get to that point, the story’s focus is on Edward Moon and his partner, the Somnambulist. The former is an over-the-hill stage magician who staves off boredom by taking on “gothic and bizarre” investigations that the police can’t solve. Sort of a Sherlock Holmes-type blessed with supposedly extraordinary mental faculties, except that he’s way past his prime. The Somnambulist meanwhile, is a mute—uses a chalkboard to communicate—hairless, freakishly tall enigma who doesn’t bleed, appears to be invincible, and has an insatiable thirst for milk. Following the two, we are introduced to a turn-of-the-century London that is tantalizingly familiar, yet inundated with the author’s little quirks like a brothel that caters to men with unique tastes—that is if women with beards, flippers for hands, or extra vestigial limbs is what turns you on ;) We also get to meet a diverse supporting cast that ranges from the mundane in Edward’s housekeeper Mrs. Grossmith, a vagrant named Speight, and Detective Inspector Merryweather to the peculiar in the albino Mr. Skimpole, the Archivist, Thomas Cribb who is apparently a time traveler, the clairvoyant Madame Innocenti, and the prisoner Barabbas who is to Moon what Professor Moriarty was to Holmes. As far as the actual plot, I can’t really say too much without spoiling all the fun, but if you can figure out how a series of unexplained murders, a carnival freakshow called The Human Fly, the Directorate—a cloak & dagger organization serving the Crown, Pantisocracy, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an assassin dubbed the Mongoose, the Vigilance Committee who debunks psychics, an audacious conspiracy against London, Lud, and two superhuman killers dressed as English schoolboys fit together, then be my guest :)

As a whole, “The Somnambulist” is an eccentric novel that partly seems to celebrate 19th century Victorian London with its numerous references while also mocking the era, whereas the story is a curious mixture of detective mystery, gothic horror, black comedy, and supernatural fantasy. In short, the formula for Jonathan Barnes’ debut is quite bizarre, and while it seems like it shouldn’t work, it’s actually very effective—to a certain point. For instance, I really liked the narrative style, the surprise twist was executed nicely, and I loved the tone of the book which beautifully blended together whimsy, grotesqueness, and intrigue. However, I thought the information regarding Edward Moon's past was sorely lacking, particularly the Clapham debacle which is frequently mentioned, the history that he shares with the prisoner Barabbas, and his relationship with a character that pops up later in the book. I was also disappointed in the Somnambulist—who was more of a secondary player despite the novel being named after him—and not learning who or what he is, where he came from, or why he befriended Edward in the first place other than some weak speculations. Another thing that bothered me was how the narrative inexplicably went from focusing on Edward Moon to including Mr. Skimpole, his boss Dedlock, Mrs. Grossmith and various other characters that weren’t quite as interesting. Lastly, once the big secret was unveiled and the Prefects made their appearance, the novel veers into standard comic book/penny dreadful fare—complete with a Frankenstein-like monster—which brought to mind Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not exactly a bad thing, but it was unexpected and might turn off readers who are unable to suspend their disbelief.

In conclusion, “The Somnambulist” may have had its shortcomings and while it wasn't the best debut novel that I've read this year, the book was thoroughly entertaining and I would definitely recommend it to readers. Plus
, there’s no denying that the author is a special talent and I have a strong feeling that newcomer Jonathan Barnes is here to stay…

NOTE:The Domino Men”, the follow-up to Jonathan Barnes’The Somnambulist”, will be released February 21, 2008 (UK only) through
Gollancz Books.


Unknown said...

Actually, in spite of the problems you have with it, it sounds very interesting!

Robert said...

Well to be honest, they are just minor issues. I definitely enjoyed the book for the most part and will be interested to see what Jonathan does in the sequel :)

Anonymous said...

So far the book has been very interesting.


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