The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

The SomnambulistI’m having terrible luck with books lately.  The last four or five I’ve read were (at best) ‘meh’.  I’ve also read a few lately written by historians-turned-novelists.  I thought perhaps I might do better with someone who has an English degree.

I was wrong.  Despite earning a ‘first’ (British equivalent of Summa Cum Laude) in English Lit at Oxford, Barnes does not make a better novelist than the historians I’ve read of late.  In fact, this book was quite a bit worse.

I don’t like writing about books I dislike, or disliking books in the first place. I feel very ungenerous for being harsh on writers and their work, especially in a medium where they can see my bald criticisms (and several of them have).  I would vastly prefer to only find great books and be able to swoon and flail over them in private, and pontificate over them on this blog. But that is not my fate. And I feel like it’s better to put my thoughts out there and keep other people from wasting their time on books that aren’t worth the effort it takes to read them. So forgive my harshness, but this was not a good book. Not at all.

I picked it up because the cover very clearly says ’19th century England’, from the dark hat and cloak to the gas-lit facade of the Houses of Parliament.  That’s my place and my time period, so I was in.  I wasn’t really drawn in by the jacket copy, focusing on a conjurer/illusionist/magician figure (I dislike magic), or by the title. Somnambulist means sleepwalker, in case you didn’t know.  But the setting is enough for me when it comes to books–a policy I may have to change when I think about the last few books I’ve read.

The story is about a magician, Edward Moon, who also is relatively famous for his skills as a part-time detective, a Sherlock Holmes or C. Auguste Dupin type character. His sidekick, both in his magical show and in his mystery-solving adventures is the Somnambulist, a mute giant with superhuman strength and an apparent immunity to being stabbed with multiple swords. The Somnamulist reminded me of the mythical Golem of Jewish Folklore.

Other characters include an albino who works for a government agency called the Directorate, his Tiny Tim-esque son on crutches, a bearded prostitute with a deformed third arm emerging from the middle of her chest, two aged men dressed as English schoolboys who happen to be supernatural assassins, fake ‘Chinamen’, the Human Fly, the sewn together and reanimated body of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and an all-powerful cult bent on destroying London. Oh, yes, and a Benjamin-Button character who travels through his life backwards, getting younger by the day. But he’s also living through time backwards and lives for thousands of years, eventually ‘founding’ London in pre-Roman times.

The sad thing is that in that description, I didn’t even include all of the different assassins or crackpots running through this story. I left out the Mongoose, Reverand Tan, the all-knowing Archivist, Moon’s ex-partner and now-nemesis Barabbas, the list goes on.  This book is a mess of absolutely unbelievable crap. And none of it is ever well explained.  Essentially, the plot revolves around Moon trying to solve a murder, and being led slowly into this large conspiracy to destroy London and start a new society in its place.  This is all based on a theory Coleridge actually had, called pantisocracy.  He and some mates were going to leave England and start an agrarian utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in middle-Pennsylvania.  They gave up the idea after only a few months, but Barnes has resurrected it for this novel.

In an attempt to summarize this story, I realize that I don’t truly understand it.  Part of the problem was that I had a hard time reading the book–it was not captivating, not exciting. I had to struggle to finish a few pages at a time.

Another problem is the story makes no sense, the narrator is totally unreliable and admits to telling lies in the story, and no one bothers to explain anything that’s going on.  The plot was a complete clusterfuck. I have no idea how this shit got published. I don’t say that often, but I mean it.

My other problems with the book revolved around character.  Moon is described as a great detective, but we never see any evidence.  Unlike the Holmes stories, where we see snippets of his abilities in deduction, Moon is just described as a great detective by others.There is talk of past cases, successful and not so much, but in this mystery he is shockingly passive.   He waits for others to tell him what is going on, give him clues and point him in the right direction. And they do, time and time again.  He even has a man on his side who has traveled from the future and knows how the story goes–and yet Moon bumbles from one place to another until he wanders into a trap and is nearly killed.  His one proactive moment is putting ads in the papers for someone who might have information he needs, but the gentleman who answers the ad is sent directly from Moon’s enemies.  It’s all a trap, and he has no capacity for seeing that.  He is an incredibly disappointing detective.  And a disappointing character all around, with very little depth or back story.

I should have put this book down when I read the first 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 willfully bizarre. 

This is the most truthful and realistic part of the novel. I had an intense and immediate dislike of the book and the author as soon as I read this.  I dislike narrative ‘tricks’ for the sake of trickery, and this one seemed to also be apologizing for sub-par writing which did not engender confidence in me as a reader.  Barnes continues with the narrative tricks with confusing lies by the narrator, and with the final reveal of the narrator’s identity.  I don’t want narrative tricks; I want an actual story.  There are a few books where these tricks work–because you’ve believed a story to a certain point, and you are thrown completely from the narrative saddle by a revelation halfway.  The example for me is Ian McEwan’s Atonement, which I both adore and hate. I absolutely detest that book for how horrible it made me feel, like a friend had walked beside me for a while, then turned around and stabbed me in the gut.  That is a narrative trick that works. It left me weeping for a good hour. These narrative tricks that Barnes employs are just annoying, a nuisance.

I’m afraid to say I don’t think anything was redeeming about this book.  None of the characters were particularly likeable or whole.  A lot of them seemed like rip-offs of other characters–Moon was meant to be like Holmes, The Prefects seemed to be Croup and Vandemar light, there was also Tiny Tim, the Golem, and Benjamin Button.  An original, or fully fleshed-out character would have been nice.

The plot was nonsensical and unsatisfying. The writing wasn’t engaging, nor was it stylistically pleasant.  I think the phrase ‘ersatz Chinaman’ was used at least 4 times. The narrator was annoying at best.  It was a really terrible book. Normally, when I don’t like a book very much I try to say ‘if you really like X time period, or X genre then this might be worth reading’. I cannot think of a single type of person who would enjoy this book. It’s not satisfying as a mystery, it’s not satisfying as a part of the time period, it’s useless if you value complicated characters or beautiful prose.  I guess if you enjoy being jerked around by a narrator and like to leave a book with less comprehension of the plot than during the first few pages, then this one’s for you!

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2 responses to “The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

  1. I have read this. Although it took some remembering. I got a few ‘new’ Victorian detective novels (including Mark Gatiss’ Lucifer Box, and Gile Brandreth’s Oscar Wilde, and one about a circus on a train) and I wasn’t impressed with any of them really. To see you talk about “pantisocracy” I think you understood it better than me. One firm thing I can remember is that, as a keeper of books on heaving shelves, I decided this wasn’t worth having to refer to again and took it (and all those mentioned above) to a charity shop! A proper book chairty shop, mind. I hope they got something good out of it.

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