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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Communion Town" by Sam Thompson (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION:  "A city in ten chapters.

Every city is made of stories: stories that intersect and diverge, stories of the commonplace and the strange, of love and crime, of ghosts and monsters.

In this city an asylum seeker struggles to begin a new life, while a folk musician pays with a broken heart for a song and a butcher learns the secrets of the slaughterhouse. A tourist strays into a baffling ritual and a child commits an incalculable crime; private detectives search the streets for their archenemies and soulmates and, somewhere in the shadows, a figure which might once have been human waits to tell its tale.

Communion Town is a city in ten chapters: a place imagined differently by each citizen, mixing the everyday with the gothic and the uncanny; a place of voices half-heard, sights half-glimpsed and desires half-acknowledged. It is a virtuosic first novel from a young writer of true talent"

When the 2012 Man Booker longlist was announced, three novels from it were talked about as being sffnal and as mentioned in my post on the topic, I decided I would take a look at them when I have a chance. 

I read, loved and reviewed The Teleportation Accident and I opened, hated and put down Umbrella by Will Self - all capital words and exclamation points everywhere are things I strongly dislike - while Communion Town turned out to be a remarkable experience overall, but with two caveats: first that it is not a novel even in the loose way of The Islanders or Things We Didn't See Coming, but a collection of unrelated stories set in the imaginary city of the title.

And then as the style of each story varies so much, some will work better than others, but that will be quite a personal experience in a way a more stylistically unified work would not. The stories will mesmerize you, they will tease you, they will offer promises and then they will end... 

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Here I will offer a short discussion of each story and its first few lines as proof of the extraordinary stylistic range Sam Thompson shows in the book:

I - Communion Town

In the opening act we are introduced to the City through the voice of an all-knowing bureaucrat spying on two newcomers:

"Do you remember how you came to this city, Ulya? Think back, because we need to agree on what happened right from the start. I want to help him out as much as you do, believe me. I know you’re worried, and in your place I’d be the same – but I can promise you that conditions are actually quite tolerable in there. So let’s approach this calmly. When I’ve said what I have to say, I’m going to offer you an opportunity, and I hope you’ll feel able to respond."

This opening paragraph is another one that will make an updated "memorable first lines" post and which made Communion Town a must read. The story delivers on its promise and more.

II - The Song of Serelight Fair

The longest and best of the 10 stories; poor boy, rich girl, music. Awesome and I wish this story did not end...

"I saw her on the street today. Another pedestrian pushed in front of me and she was there, already moving past, carrying a takeaway espresso and grasping the strap of her shoulder bag. She’d bought a smart new coat for the autumn, and her hair was cut above the shoulders, but it was the old shade of red again. I ducked towards a news-stand as if I were studying the magazines. She’d prefer that, I thought. She had somewhere to go. For the space of a single footstep, there was nothing in between us but air, and I could have spoken to her without raising my voice, but then the space widened and rush hour commuters filled it, pushing us further and further apart. I followed her for a short distance, just to see if I could stay close, but she outpaced me and I lost her as she boarded a tram. As I watched her disappear a song came into my head, an old song I used to know. I’ve been singing it to myself ever since."

III - The City Room

The first story narrated in third person; a boy living with his grandmother, his toys, his imagination and an adventure you decide its reality or lack of such. Another hit of the book and my second favorite story.

"In from the street, through the hall and down, one palm making a squeak on the bannister, his feet pattering softly on the stairs, he can go at such a speed and still be so quiet. As he enters the dim corridor his eyes crowd with blocks of a colour that doesn’t have a name, a colour that no one else has discovered."

IV - Gallathea

Noir; well, sort of as the detective's investigative target may or may not exist in the same temporal place with him.  This is the second longest piece of the book and the first somewhat disappointing one for me as it was quite predictable after a while. Back to first person and while indeed the voice is Chandlerian, I kind of outgrew that a long time ago.

"Let’s try this one more time, kid. Let’s get this straight.
Why did you do it?

1. Breakfast with Violence

That day, the day the Cherub boys came looking for me, I was down at Meaney’s."

V - Good Slaughter

Now, this is how dark fiction should be written to convey suspense and well, darkness; an expert butcher's musings on life on the "slaughter line" and his growing suspicions that his unlikable boss is the famous serial killer "the Flaneur" that has been stalking the city for a long time and who may or may not be real. Excellent stuff and while I prefer a few other more intimate stories, this is a highlight of the book.

 "Work stopped a heartbeat back. There’s no hush like the hush when the machinery shuts off. It’s an uproar of silence. We keep our thoughts private. The workers remove their goggles, hard hats and earplugs, peel off their spattered overalls, scrub their hands at the sanitary stations and file to the exits. The concrete gleams. Clear droplets form on steel points, swelling and falling, mechanical, slower and slower. They don’t want to count away the time that’s left."

VI - Three Translations

Back to third person in a story that brings a "foreign view" to the city, as former school friends Dawn - working for a couple of years in Communion Town - and Andie, just visiting, meet by chance. However it is Andie who sees and understands more, while Dawn seems stuck in a  forever translating role. This is a good story with a lot of subtle touches and undercurrents, but I felt something was missing to make it a truly great one.

"Dawn was walking home along the seafront when a voice called her name. As she looked around, a tall, fair-haired girl hefted a rucksack on her shoulder and started forward, shading her eyes against the hard sunlight, almost colliding with a cyclist as he zipped by. The tall girl, whose name was Andie, called out again. A man selling treats from an icebox slung across his chest was watching with interest."

VII - The Significant City of Lazarus Glass

Holmesian pastiche, but well done and very inventive and entertaining, though you can see the denouement quite a way out. Still a highlight of the book and the most straightforward "accessible" story as style goes.

"Exquisite enigmas, mysteries sinister and bizarre: for Peregrine Fetch these were at once a vocation and the keenest happiness in life. As an archive of the gruesome and the perplexing his casebook is without peer and yet, even there, the details of his final adventure must strike the interpreter as anomalous. It may be that we have yet to grasp the whole pattern of the crimes."

VIII - Outside the Days

Short but excellent and another example of how to write suspense without any overt violence. The good looking, interesting, well connected, seemingly successful Stephen and the less socially adept narrator in a role reversal...

"When Stephen’s message came I had nearly forgotten him. Time passes, and on most days he never entered my thoughts, or if he did it was faintly and far off. But without warning now he wanted to see me again, and, although he didn’t say why, I could find no way not to agree. I found myself walking along Impasto Street on a dark afternoon in mid-December when some influence had sent people out into the city in large numbers, jostling to spend money, zealous and hard-faced, shouldering each other aside."

IX - The Rose Tree

Another story that tries to "rough it out" and in consequence, it did not really work for me. The least favorite story of mine and one I thought the book could do without.

"A few of us were in the café that night. On this side of town there aren’t many places to go, so when we feel the need of a drink or some quiet company through the hours of darkness, we come here, where Dilks keeps serving till dawn. For as long as the season lasts, everyone knows that once dark has fallen you don’t go out again before morning."

X - A Way to Leave

Back to third person and the intimate. This is a quieter story and it contains for once two points of view as we see both Simon and Florence's perspectives as a seemingly mismatched couple. But there is more subtlety involved than Simon's whining from the first few pages implies and I actually liked this one quite a lot in its understated prose. A good way to leave indeed...

"Simon knelt with his body locked from groin to throat until the muscles opened and he succeeded in pouring out a caustic mixture of liquid and gas. When he could breathe again he flushed away the waste, rinsed his mouth and stood in front of the mirror, trying to decide whether the pain had lessened. The left side of his head throbbed from the eye-socket to the roots of the teeth.His migraines had been getting worse, forcing him to spend whole days lying half-awake in the darkened bedroom. In his dream Florence had murdered him but everyone had agreed that he was to blame."

Overall, Communion Town is a highly recommended book that offers an exquisite reading experience with its many voices in an imaginary city that vividly comes to life.


M. R. Mathias said...

Hmmm... Now this is interesting.


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