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The Somnambulistby Jonathan Barnes
Synopses & Reviews
Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect that he did in earlier times. Still, each night he returns to the stage of his theater to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling, audience, aided by his partner, the Somnambulist — a silent, hairless, hulking giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed. But these are strange, strange times in England, with the oddest of sorts prowling London's dank underbelly. And the very bizarre death of a disreputable actor has compelled a baffled police constabulary to turn once again to Edward Moon for help — inevitably setting in motion events that will shatter his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality.
"Quite a few fine novels have come this way of late — Ronan Bennett's 'Zugzwang,' Frank Tallis' 'Vienna Blood' and T. Jefferson Parker's 'L.A. Outlaws' are three — but nothing remotely resembling Jonathan Barnes' strange, outrageous and wonderful extravaganza, 'The Somnambulist.' Variously a satire, an adventure, a mystery and a horror show, this first novel by a young Englishman is set in London... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) in 1901. Its heroes are Edward Moon, a celebrated magician and amateur detective, and his close friend and associate, known only as the Somnambulist. There are echoes of Holmes and Watson in this pair, but Holmes and Watson as they might have been if they, their creator and their entire world had partaken of a psychedelic snack of one sort or another. Moon is middle-aged, losing his looks and past his prime as both conjurer and detective. He hungers for a new case to revive his reputation. His mute but devoted friend the Somnambulist, whose origins are vague, is 8 feet tall, hairless, prodigiously strong and addicted to milk. He may not be entirely human, since swords can pass through his body without causing him to bleed or show pain. Despite his name, the Somnambulist does not seem to sleepwalk, or if he does, I missed it. In any event, it would be a minor quirk in a novel in which virtually everyone is grotesque in one way or another. Early in the story, Moon is approached by an albino named Skimpole, who works for a government security agency called the Directorate. London is in danger, Skimpole insists, and Moon must help save it. But Moon loathes the man and rejects his plea. 'I consider myself a man open to the improbable,' Skimpole tells Moon, and that is the only possible way to approach this deeply mysterious novel. Moon becomes friendly with one Thomas Cribb, a monstrously ugly man who claims to have lived in both the past and the future, and may in fact have done so. ('You've no idea how complicated it is being me,' he admits.) Others in the story include the Fiend, a condemned man in Newgate prison ('Hell's chief outpost on Earth') who is both a genius and grossly fat, and the equally corpulent Mrs. Puggsley, who runs the brothel that Moon patronizes. It caters to 'special, unique tastes — preferences which, to the innocent, unjaded eye of the reader, may seem distasteful and even repugnant.' Indeed, Moon's carnal preferences must not be revealed in these genteel pages, and it can only be said in his defense that he considers them 'the mark of an inquisitive mind and an experimental spirit.' Another character frequents the Survivors' Club, whose members have suffered terrible bodily disfigurement, but in this sanctuary each can 'relax without shame and hold his head up high amongst his peers.' Barnes amuses himself with writing lurid physical descriptions. Cribb, the time-traveler, 'resembled a gargoyle crawled down from the roofs of the city and left to roam its streets with impunity.' In a squalid London slum, 'people seemed more animal than human, their faces grimy, leprous and grizzled.' The Human Fly, a creature from a carnival, 'seemed a second Caliban — bestial, ferocious, his face covered with vomit-coloured lumps and scales.' The aged doorman at the Survivors' Club 'had huge eyebrows — vast white things like spiky tadpoles mutated to a dozen times their normal size — which hung precariously beneath his brow and cast strange shadows across his face.' Good heavens, you say, is no one attractive in this novel? Well, Moon's sister Charlotte is something of a beauty, but that cannot save her from being threatened with a horrid fate. Moon and the Somnambulist's investigation of a pair of murders leads them into the fiendish conspiracy that the albino warned of. A cult that calls itself Love is planning an armed takeover of London. Led by a madman, Love's thousand-man army launches its attack in London's financial district, slaughtering stockbrokers as well as police. All the while, Moon is trying to save both his sister and the Somnambulist from various killers. Also, a creature that has been rather imperfectly brought back from the dead joins the fray, leading to this memorable image: 'He proved easy to follow since he left in his wake a trail of body parts (fingers, an ear, lumps of flesh and skin) as well as a lurid green track, like a giant upright snail.' There is much that is strange, magical and darkly hilarious in this book, at least if one savors the sardonic and the bizarre. At various points it recalls Dickens, 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'Frankenstein,' but it remains an original and monumentally inventive piece of work by a writer still in his 20s. Barnes seems to leave himself room for a sequel — a consummation devoutly to be wished." Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail address is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"[B]rilliant...Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century....Truly surprising plot twists and red herrings abound." Austin Chronicle
"The Illusionist meets Arthur Conan Doyle. And Edgar Allan Poe. Also Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, and Doctor Who....Old-school entertainment in the penny-dreadful tradition that almost succeeds in being as sublime as it is ridiculous. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"[A] remarkably entertaining horror/mystery/historical/comic novel that fans of any of those genres won't want to miss....
"A reader of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins is likely to find plenty to wink at, but the story works on many levels. Highly recommended." Library Journal
"Barnes's energetic prose is an efficient vehicle for presenting one outrageous character or situation after another....It is fun going down, but chances are you'll hate yourself in the morning." Kirkus Reviews
"In recent years there has been a surge of novels set in the 19th century. The Somnambulist is one of the best....[A] grotesque and compelling debut." The Guardian (U.K.)
"This mix of mystery, fantasy and the uncategorizable proves absolutely beguiling." Bookgasm
"This promising debut subverts its 19th-century predecessors amusingly. Inventive and often witty. A cabinet crammed with curiosities." The Observer (U.K.)
"Magical, dark, beautifully odd — and utterly compelling — this is an astonishing debut." Michael Marshall, author of The Intruders
This extraordinary tale involves Edward Moon, stage magician and detective, his silent sidekick the Somnambulist, and a devilish plot to re-create the apocalyptic prophecies of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and bring the British Empire crashing down.
"A deliciously spooky pastiche of the high and low Gothic traditions and the tender heroines who live and die by them."
—New York Times Book Review
“Harwood, master of creeping Victorian horror, does it again . . . Twisted in every sense of the word and wonderfully atmospheric.”—Booklist
Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a remote asylum in England. She has no memory of the past few weeks. The doctor, Maynard Straker, tells her that she admitted herself under the name Lucy Ashton, then suffered a seizure. When she insists he has mistaken her for someone else, Dr. Straker sends a telegram to her uncle, who replies that Georgina Ferrars is at home with him in London: “Your patient must be an imposter.” Suddenly her voluntary confinement becomes involuntary. Who is the woman in her uncle’s house? Georgina’s perilous quest to free herself takes us from a cliffside cottage on the Isle of Wight to the secret passages of Tregannon House and into a web of hidden family ties on which her survival depends.
“Redolent with a sense of foreboding . . . This gothic tale will sweep you up into the very heart of Victorian England. A splendid read!”—Historical Novel Society, Editors’ Choice
“A richly textured . . . [and] masterfully constructed narrative . . . Readers are guaranteed a thoroughly diverting time in Harwood’s not-to-be-trusted hands.”—The Independent (UK)
“The crisp prose and twisty plot will encourage many to read this in one sitting.”—Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Jonathan Barnes, author of the critically acclaimed novel The Somnambulist, graduated from Oxford University with a first in English literature. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and lives in London.
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