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The Somnambulistby Jonathan Barnes
Synopses & Reviews
Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it.
Once the toast of good society in Victoria's England, the extraordinary conjurer Edward Moon no longer commands the respect or inspires the awe that he did in earlier times. Despite having previously unraveled more than sixty perplexing criminal puzzles (to the delight of a grateful London constabulary), he is considered something of an embarrassment these days. Still, each night without fail, he returns to the stage of his theatre to amaze his devoted, albeit dwindling audience with the same old astonishments — aided by his partner, the silent, hairless, hulking, surprisingly placid giant who, when stabbed, does not bleed...and who goes by but one appellation:
On a night of roiling mists and long shadows, in a corner of the city where only the most foolhardy will deign to tread, a rather disreputable actor meets his end in a most bizarre and terrible fashion. Baffled, the police turn once again in the direction of Edward Moon — who will always welcome such assignments as an escape from ennui. And, in fact, he leads the officers to a murderer rather quickly. Perhaps too quickly. For these are strange, strange times in England, with the strangest of sorts prowling London's dank underbelly: sinister circus performers, freakishly deformed prostitutes, sadistic grown killers in schoolboy attire, a human fly, a man who lives backwards. And nothing is precisely as it seems.
Which should be no surprise to Moon, whose life and livelihood consists entirely of the illusionary, the unexpected, the seemingly impossible. Yet what is to follow will shatter his increasingly tenuous grasp on reality — as death follows death follows death in the dastardly pursuit of poetry, freedom, utopia...and Love, Love, Love, and Love.
Remember the name Jonathan Barnes, for, with The Somnambulist, he has burst upon the literary scene with a breathtaking and brilliant, frightening and hilarious, dark invention that recalls Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, and Clive Barker at their grimly fantastical best...with more than a pinch of Carl Hiaasen–esque outrageousness stirred into the demonically delicious brew.
Read on...and be astonished!
"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)
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"Quite a few fine novels have come this way of late...but nothing remotely resembling Jonathan Barnes's strange, outrageous and wonderful extravaganza....
"[A] remarkably entertaining horror/mystery/historical/comic novel that fans of any of those genres won't want to miss....
"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
"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
"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
"[B]rilliant...Barnes crafts one of the finest first novels of the young century....Truly surprising plot twists and red herrings abound." Austin Chronicle
"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 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 mix of mystery, fantasy and the uncategorizable proves absolutely beguiling." Bookgasm
"[The] narrator warns us on page 1 that the story is merely a bit of implausible nonsense with 'no literary merit whatsoever.' These are apt self-criticisms, it turns out, for, despite some humorous moments, The Somnambulist is not half as clever as it pretends to be." Minneapolis Star Tribune
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 subversive, darkly comic novel of a young Indian man's misadventures in Victorian London as the city is gripped by a series of gruesome murders. Shortlisted for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this sly update of the Gothic novel marks the new arrival of a compelling Indian voice in North America.
A brilliant new Gothic thriller from the acclaimed author of The Ghost Writer and The Seance.
A brilliant new Gothic thriller from the acclaimed author of The Ghost Writer and The Seance
Confused and disoriented, Georgina Ferrars awakens in a small room in Tregannon House, a private asylum in a remote corner of 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 the day before, 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 uncles house? And what has become of her two most precious possessions, a dragonfly pin left to her by her mother and a writing case containing her journal, the only record of those missing weeks? Georginas 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.
Another delicious read from the author praised by Ruth Rendell as having “a gift for creating suspense, apparently effortlessly, as if it belongs in the nature of fiction.”
A subversive, macabre novel of a young Indian man’s misadventures in Victorian London as the city is racked by a series of murders
In a small Bihari village, Captain William T. Meadows finds just the man to further his phrenological research back home: Amir Ali, confessed member of the infamous Thugee cult. With tales of a murderous youth redeemed, Ali gains passage to England, his villainously shaped skull there to be studied. Only Ali knows just how embroidered his story is, so when a killer begins depriving London’s underclass of their heads, suspicion naturally falls on the “thug.” With help from fellow immigrants led by a shrewd Punjabi woman, Ali journeys deep into a hostile city in an attempt to save himself and end the gruesome murders.
Ranging from skull-lined mansions to underground tunnels a ghostly people call home, The Thing about Thugs is a feat of imagination to rival Wilkie Collins or Michael Chabon. Short-listed for the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize, this sly Victorian role reversal marks the arrival of a compelling new Indian novelist to North America.
About the Author
Jonathan Barnes graduated from Oxford University with a first in English literature. He reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and lives in London. The Somnambulist is his first novel.
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