Wednesday, March 11, 2009
weekly book review: the somnambulist, by jonathan barnes
"The many men, so beautiful. And they all dead did lie. And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on, and so did I."

For the most part, the books on my list of resolution reads are heavy, depressing, beastly things, and I found myself needing a break from all of that. Enter: The Somnambulist.

Set in Victorian-era London, The Somnambulist chronicles the (mis)adventures of Edward Moon, a magician past his prime whose true passion is solving crimes, and his sidekick The Somnambulist, a massive, milk-guzzling, hairless mute who is able to endure impaling with neither injury nor pain. Add a bizarre murder, an albino, a menagerie of circus freaks, prostitutes, assassins, poets, a creeeepy Utopian cult, a man for whom time passes backwards, a medium, and various assorted psychopaths and you have The Somnambulist - a novel that is part Frankenstein, part Sherlock Holmes, and one of the strangest, freakiest, funniest, and most overall enjoyable books I've read so far this year.

The narrator, both unnamed and unreliable, begins his tale with a warning: "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." And although Barnes' prose is far from pedestrian, all those other things are pretty much true. This, of course, is what makes it so much fun to read.

Full to overflowing with twist, turns, and red herrings, Barnes' story more than once risks becoming a bit too absurd, yet he somehow manages to pull it all off. Well, mostly pull it off. The only notable exception to this would be the ending, which wasn't quite as satisfying as I'd hoped it would be. Still, I found Barnes' debut to be a clever and wholly pleasant diversion, and its flaws easy enough to forgive.

In short - I liked it. I liked it a lot.

Jonathan Barnes
2007 (paperback), 353 pages

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