Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistThe Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To start off with, I don’t know how to describe the plot of this book. It’s a mystery of sorts. It takes place in Victorian London. There’s a faux-Holmesian sleuth named Edward Moon – eccentric and meant to be blessed by a superior talent for noticing details and making deductions. But it is in no way a Sherlock Holmes type mystery – it’s much too grotesque for that. I’m not sure how this might be shelved genre-wise but if it were up to me I’d probably place it under horror rather than mystery.

It’s a book that seems to go out of its way to be ugly and the very opposite of charming. Everything is strange and ugly and mutated. The author is constantly using language that paints a truly dark and grotesque view of London and its inhabitants. For example in describing one obscenely obese character he copiously spills out words and phrases like gelatinous, oleaginous and “…his body wracked by suety shudders.”

Of course there is nothing wrong with this and the author does do an admirable job of creating a very vivid and particular vision of his really messed up world. Unfortunately, it was not a world I was really in the mood for or for which I had any liking. The characters are also somewhat indecipherable, bland and unlikeable, especially Moon who the story centers on. I think this is likely intentional as we discover later in the book that the narrator of this tale is quite unreliable and is likely presenting a distorted view of the world and its inhabitants.
While this feat of writing is in some ways praise worthy, I was left cold by the story, the characters, and the overall atmosphere of the book. At points the book seemed more concerned with shocking and/or discomfiting the reader with ever more grotesque characters or scenes rather than presenting a coherent story.

And there are a lot of other little quirky pieces that never knit into a cohesive whole for me. There’s randomly a character that lives backward in time and is constantly described as “the ugly man”. There are frequent references to what happened to Moon “ Clapham” which is never explained and never enters into the story. The title of the book refers to Moon’s constant companion –The Somnambulist - a giant of a man who doesn’t speak and can have swords thrust through him without being hurt or bleeding.

Maybe there was some deeper meaning, maybe the author was playing with an homage to a certain type of story. I don’t know and I never cared enough to try and figure it out.

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