Thursday, January 3, 2008

Review: The Somnambulist

Title: The Somnambulist

Author: Jonathan Barnes

Publisher: William Morrow

# of Pages: 352

Rating: 5/10

This review is for an advanced reader's copy.

Favorite Line: is a sad and tragic truth that I have never yet succeeded in underestimating the intelligence of the general public.

Book Description

The Somnabulist follows the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, stage magician and detective, and his silent sidekick the Somnambulist. A bizarre series of murders unsettles turn-of-the-century London, but as Moon begins to investigate, he realizes it is only the beginning: nourished by blood and poetry, an eerie uprising grows among the very roots of the city.
With a gallery of vividly grotesque characters, a richly evoked setting and a highly literary and playful style, this is an amazingly addictive, brilliant debut novel from an author with a great voice and huge potential.

Most people reviewing this book inevitably begin by quoting the first paragraph. It's hard to resist:
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 willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.
Well, I wouldn't say the book has no literary merit whatsoever. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the first 60% or so. And the first paragraph, as intended, intrigued me. Especially when followed soon after by proof that readers are being led through the story by an unreliable narrator. Oh, how I love unreliable narrators.

But then... my goodness, did it become convoluted. I am not entirely unconvinced the Barnes began writing one book, could find no reasonable way to resolve the plot constructs he made, and therefore just finished the story with an entirely different resolution than the one he originally intended to write.

And what a random resolution it was.

Let's start at the beginning, though. The Somnambulist takes place at the very beginning of the Edwardian era, just after Queen Victoria died- very fitting with the tone of the story as Britain was on the cusp of change, from the "old world" hierarchy of class and landed gentry to that of the "new world" pyramid which centered on money and modernity. Here we find Edward Moon, a conjurer past his prime who works magic tricks in a small theater with the help of his silent sidekick, the Somnambulist. Edward Moon is also a detective, and he is approached to investigate bizarre and violent deaths that have recently occurred in London. As he researches deeper into the deaths, he pulls all sorts of characters into his story- a man who claims he is living life backwards, an albino assassin, a homeless man, a dead Samuel Coleridge and a charlatan fortune teller. All these people somehow relate to the master plot- that London is in danger of "falling" to a very dangerous group of people.

I would tell you more details about the plot except that I think with a mystery, it's imperative not to know too much at the start. And also because the plot makes me scratch my head, so the chances of me being able to explain it are slim to none.

I don't really know what to make of this book. I was thoroughly engaged for the first half- actually, to be fair, I was really into the second half, too. I wanted to know how the book would end, how the mystery would resolve. But with about sixty pages or so to go, I just lost respect for the story. It seemed as though situations occurred just for the convenience of the author having to get certain characters in or out of the story. The "climax," as it were, was such an utter letdown that I feel a little miffed. When you allow yourself to get involved in a story, you do so with the expectation that it won't be a dead investment.

In my opinion, the story went swimmingly until the climax- when the narrator reveals his/her identity to the reader. After that, it just descended into utter chaos. In fact, the narrator even admits this, saying, "I expect by now that your disbelief is not so much suspended as dangling from the highest plateau of credulity."

And that's the thing- after leading us on this wild goose chase of a novel for so long, entertaining as it was, I expected to be thoroughly wowed by the conclusion. And I wasn't. I didn't find it appealing at all. I thought it was a cop-out.

And then there's the title. Many other readers have commented that the somnambulist in the book isn't deserving of having the book titled for him. I agree- he isn't that major of a character. However, defines a somnambulist as "someone who walks about in his sleep." Which, figuratively, could really refer to a couple of other characters in the book. So, maybe the title is fitting. In an obscure, hard-to-follow sort of way. But then, many things about this book are obscure and hard-to-follow.

That's why, ultimately, I was disappointed by it. I think the author started off strong, and then lost his way. In trying to write some sort of Susanna Clarke meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Gothic mystery, he got too caught up in the details and nuances and lost sight of the plot. Hopefully, in his second book, he won't lose me along the way- because, considering how enthralled I was in the first half, I'll definitely be checking out his second book.

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