- 14 August 2007
- By Gerard Wood
Every review of The Somnambulist I’ve read begins by quoting the novel’s opening paragraph, an extremely critical review of the book by its own narrator. I’m going to resist the temptation to do the same. Suffice it to say that the narrator’s criticism of his own work (or her own work – we don’t know for some time who the narrator is) is an amusing tease that sets the scene for a sustained attack on our expectations. The Somnambulist is Jonathan Barnes’ debut novel and it is an absolute ripper!This is a masterfully written novel, witty, sometimes hilarious, sometimes grotesque, and at times quite moving. Although, be warned: our narrator confesses that he (or she), will have occasion to lie to us.
So, naturally, I’m now going to quote the opening paragraph:
Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.
Describing the novel as a fantastical detective story set in Victorian London is as good a way as any to categorise a novel that defies categorisation through Barnes’ obvious delight in thwarting our expectations. Its many twists and turns make for a ludicrously convoluted plot, handled so skilfully and with such enthusiasm that the ridiculousness of it all is pure delight.
And I defy anyone to deduce who the narrator is before the moment of revelation!
The story’s protagonist is Edward Moon, a stage magician and amateur detective, somewhat past his prime. Moon’s magic is stage magic – sleight of hand. Which would seem to be true of all the magic that occurs. Mostly. Some things simply cannot be (and are not) explained. Is it magic? The supernatural? Or is the narrator having us on?
Moon’s stage show, once the talk of old London Town, has lost its sparkle and he is languishing in boredom and also, perhaps, suffering a loss of confidence due to the unexplained debacle of a past investigation. Baffled by the mysterious death of Cyril Honeymoon (a death that the narrator has revealed to us is far more bizarre than it appears), the London constabulary call upon the detective. Another murder quickly follows, bizarre episodes abound and gradually all is linked in to a diabolical plot against London itself.
So, who is the titular Somnambulist and why is the novel named after him? Answering the first part of that question is easier than the second. The Somnambulist is Moon’s side-kick - on stage and out in the field. In short, he is a mute and seemingly invulnerable giant of a man (with perhaps mythical roots) who communicates by scrawling badly spelled messages on a portable blackboard. His role is minor until the very end, and even then one might wonder at the dedication of the novel to him. But perhaps the title has some other more general significance? Another warning to the reader perhaps? After all, a somnambulist is a sleep-walker, one who travels through life in a dream and there is most definitely something of dream logic to this novel.
Nothing is as it seems.
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