Book Review: Readings

Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century


The Somnambulist

by Jonathan Barnes
William Morrow, 368 pp., $23.95

Jonathan Barnes' brilliant debut novel, The Somnambulist, chronicles the late Victorian-era adventures of a legendary magician-cum-detective Edward Moon and his mute, hulking, hairless sidekick, known only as the Somnambulist. The two investigate a series of bizarre murders, meet a cadre of eccentrics, and involve themselves in several strange incidents that culminate in a plot to destroy and remake London.

The unreliable, unnamed narrator, who frequently raves like a madman, issues a warning in the very first chapter: "This book has no literary merit 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." The preamble is true but for the "pedestrian prose." Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century, creating an exciting, memorable book peopled with cultists, prostitutes, circus freaks, the undead, albinos, poets, time travelers, assassins, Lovecraftian creatures, and almost every Victorian-type nefarious nasty conceived. The title figure offers an enigmatic yet sympathetic figure who communicates through (poorly spelled) words scribbled on a small chalkboard, does not bleed or feel pain, and displays an intense, inexplicable loyalty to Moon. Truly surprising plot twists and red herrings abound. Through character actions, scene descriptions, and the mention of a scant few historical facts, Barnes successfully conjures the period without divulging dates. Until the final act when the narrator cleverly reveals himself, the author presents one of the finest occult thrillers ever. After veering dangerously close to the absurd, the story ultimately concludes with a lyrically obtuse ending that creates confusion rather than clarity.

Even with that flaw, the engaging ride of The Somnambulist offers enough thrills to distract from the ending. Or perhaps, just as Jonathan Barnes' narrator deceives in the narrative, this reviewer misdirects as well? Read The Somnambulist and decide for yourself.

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The Somnambulist

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