"The Somnambulist" by Jonathan Barnes Twists, Turns and Disgusts: An Excellent Read

I just had the worthwhile experience of cracking the spine of a singular book by Jonathan Barnes -- The Somnambulist. This, Barnes' first novel, takes place in a fictional (ish) London, nearly 100 years ago. The characters are seamy. The setting is a city well greased with the oils of corruption and zealotry. The plot is full of half-mad heroes, unexpected villains, horrid murders and even more horrid sexual acts (though I may be being a bit judgmental here). It has an air of historical fiction, though it is clearly straight, fanciful, completely fabricated fiction. In short, it was just my type of book. 

Okay, I might have fibbed in that last bit. Much like the narrator of The Somnambulist, I have to qualify things to make them completely clear at times. I said Jonathan Barnes' book was a completely fabricated fiction. That is not entirely true and he does rather transparently borrow from other weavers of fine fiction. There are some mentions of true historical characters, mostly writers. There are also some nods to writers such as Mary Shelley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The former is not mentioned, but her ideas are part of Barnes' plot. It's less idea theft than it is a compliment, I should think. The latter is merely mentioned and it seems the title character is fashioned somewhat after Sherlock Holmes, though his powers of discernment fall short of the mark. 

I have to admit that The Somnambulist got off to a slow start. Not a bad one, just one that failed to hook me right in. The name is theatrical, the events in the first chapters strange and gory enough, it was the wish to know what happened next that was lacking. Nonetheless, it came. Eventually, there were so many characters and twists that I couldn't keep track, but I really wanted to know what was happening. I was combining characters together just so I didn't have to pause so often to remember which unexceptional British surname belonged to which Mister. The characters that do stand out are those at the center of the story. There is no mistaking them, as their features stand out. Oddly enough, The Somnambulist is not the main character, but he is by far the most interesting. Much of the time, I kept reading to figure out where the title character gets the significance that landed him in the title. 

Okay, I'm done giving you the boring details of my experience. Overall, I think Jonathan Barnes did an excellent job. His story reminded me strongly of "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder, which I also enjoyed. It's worth a read, if you don't mind a few commonly offensive fictional events. 

Shelly Barclay

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