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The Somnambulist review

Love it or loathe it, it certainly won't put you to sleep

Author: Jonathan Barnes

Publisher: Gollancz

315 pages • £16.99 (hardback) • £9.99 (trade paperback)

ISBN: 978-0575079410 (hardback) • 978-0575079427 (trade paperback)

Rating:

It takes a brave man to open a novel with the line, “Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever.” Can Barnes pull off such a monumental
postmodern bluff? While there’s much that doesn’t work in this debut novel, the bottom line is, it certainly keeps you turning pages, so it must be getting something right.

This is an unashamedly lurid tale, a penny dreadful with a modern makeover, its phantasmagorical fiction inhabiting a skewed, turn of the 20th century London populated by grotesques. Edward Moon is a drug-addled, music hall magician and amateur investigator who, accompanied by his mute assistant, the giant Somnambulist, begins an investigation into a series of strange deaths and unveils a plot to bring the downfall of the British Empire.

This novel gives you the uneasy familiar feeling you’d get if you stumbled into your stalker’s bedroom, so blatantly does it flaunt its influences. An intriguing range of characters, including a man traveling backwards through time and a pair of mystical assassins, appear from nowhere and remain unexplained by the end. Plot strands don’t so much weave together as tie themselves in knots.

And yet, somehow, The Somnambulist remains immensely readable. Daft, silly, unsatisfying, derivative… sure, but Barnes has a brazen gusto to his playful prose that keeps you on his side. Ultimately, it’s an amusing, lightweight experiment, but if there are any plans for a sequel, you can’t help thinking the joke might wear thin pretty quickly.

Dave Golder

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