Thursday, 7 June 2007

The Somnambulist -Jonathan Barnes

"Be warned. 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. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it. Yet, I cannot be held wholly accountable for its failings. I have good reason for presenting ypou with so sensational and unlikely an account. It is all true."
So starts the extraordinary tale of Edward Moon, stage conjuror and detective, his silent associate The Somnabulist, The Sleeper and a devilish plot to bring the British Empire crashing down.
With a wonderfully and whooly ambigious narrator, a gallery of vividly grotesque characters and a richly evoked setting of Victorian London this is an amazingly readable literary fantasy and a brilliant debut.

I loved it! This falls somewhere between Dickens and Sherlock Holmes and is a lot of fun. The characters are so rich and bizzare, and the narrator superb! The book's back cover is correct in its statement that it is frequently ridiculous, but its hugely entertaining ridiculousness! No explanation is given as to who the Somnabulist is, or why he is an eight foot tall mute who communicates through a blackboard. The leading character, Edward Moon, is a flawed individual, with a taste for deformed prostitutes, yet I loved him. There are a few twists and turns in the story, the eventually identification of the narrator is nothing short of genius. Barnes' imagination knows no bounds!

The Post-Birthday World - Lionel Shriver

"Shriver gives us another passionate novel...Like Sliding Doors, the tale splits into two, following the dramatic turns of each choice. Brilliant." Cosmopolitan.

It all hinges on one kiss. Whether Irina McGovern does or does not lean into a specific pair of lips one night in London will determine whether she stays with her disciplined, intellectual partner Lawrence or runs off with Ramsey, a hard-living snooker player.
Lawrence is Irina's partner of nearly ten years. The ex-husband of a former friend , Ramsey is one of those once-a-year acquaintances. Where Lawrence is supportive and devoted, Ramsey is erratic and spontaneous. Lawrence is emotionally withdrwan, Ramsey is passionate but volatile.
Using a parallel universe structure, we follow Irina's life as it unfolds under the influence of two drastically different men, colouring her relationships with family and friends, affecting her career and, most importantly, cahnging the texture of her daily life.
The story is about trade-offs. Both men in Irina's dual future are wirthy of her affection but they are also flawed. There is no perfect answer: what draws us to our mates in part is what is wrong with them.

I was disappointed with this novel, expecting great things from Lionel Shriver after the awesome "We Need To Talk About Kevin". The parallel universe theme is clever, but has been done-to-death, notably in Sliding Doors. The chapters are incredibly long, and apart from the first and last, two of each. Every detail of Irina's life is described in minute detail, and each double chapter mirrors the other very closely. Initially, I thought this a clever technique, but it quickly becomes tedious. I admit to skim reading a lot of the book, in particular the descriptions of Ramsey's snooker tournaments. Another drawback was that I didn't like many of the characters. Lawrence was a boor and Ramsey completely unconvincing, with a cringeworthy Dick Van Dyke cockney accent. I had to wonder what Irina saw in either of them.
Yet, something kept me reading, maybe the fact that the message of the novel is thought provoking..."The idea is that you don't only have one destint. ounger and younger, kids are pressed to decide what they want to do with their lives, as if everything hinges on one decision. But whichever direction you go, there are going to be upsides and downsides. You're dealing with a set of trade-offs, and not one perfect course in comparison to which all others are crap."
Very true. Indeed Irina's two lives are full of ups and downs. Ironically, she is more unhappy when she stays with Lawrence, and Lawrence is much nicer when she leaves.
Shriver's writing is a little too clever for her own good, and I feel that maybe she identifies with the intellectual Irina, to the extent that the novel could be autobiographical.
Too longwinded, and I was gald to finish this and move on.