Solaris, out February 2015
Matthew Cannonbridge was one of the most important figures in the literary world of the 19th Century, his influence on Polidori, Poe, Dickens and many more almost incalculable. So is present day academic Dr Toby Judd’s attack on his reputation really solely motivated by his jealousy of another Cannonbridge scholar?
Regular readers of Sci-Fi Bulletin will recognise Jonathan Barnes’ name primarily from his contributions to Big Finish’s range of historical dramas – the Frankenstein adaptation from earlier this year, and the special Sherlock Holmes stories in particular. He’s also behind the Skayne series of short eBooks, which talk about the reach that one man can have far beyond his death (and which does to an extent cover some similar territory to Cannonbridge). He’s a writer who can create an effect with a minimum of words, who is adept at planting clues throughout a story that are seemingly innocuous but which take on greater import down the line, who can thread fantastical ideas in almost without the reader noticing, and who can interweave historical fact with fiction in such a way that even if you have a working knowledge of the period in question, you start to wonder about what you knew…
Barnes brings those talents to bear in this new novel, which juxtaposes accounts of Cannonbridge’s interactions with key literary personnel of the 19th and very early 20th centuries with the present day investigations of Toby Judd, a scholar who finds himself caught up in what feels to be a conspiracy drawn from the murky world of the Da Vinci Code. A discovery leads him to a conclusion about Cannonbridge which is obvious to him, but which puts him at odds with virtually the entire Establishment, and he quickly realises that the loss of his wife is only the start of some great peril. Forces are being ranged against him that one man is powerless to fight – even with some valiant allies. To say more about Toby’s thread in this would be unfair, but suffice to say that while there are certain elements of it that feel very wrong as you go along, things make sense by the end, and chances are you’ll be ahead of Toby in his “deductions”.
The encounters, and the quotations from Cannonbridge’s works, are nicely judged pastiches of the styles of the writers he meets – having reread some of Dickens’ ghostly material recently, I particularly enjoyed the tips of the hat in those passages – and Cannonbridge himself is a character who grows and changes through the book, although perhaps not in ways that you might expect. You don’t need any knowledge of the writers involved to enjoy these sections, however – everything is made abundantly clear. The modern sections begin with a description of academic life which feels like an updated David Lodge scenario (with some particularly cutting comments along the way – if you just use initials instead of one of your forenames, then prepare to be skewered), and Barnes never lets the more outré elements of either past or present sections overbalance the narrative.
There’s plenty of scope for a sequel, after the killer last line (and don’t bother just going to it – it makes no sense on its own!), and I hope that the literary investigations will continue.
Verdict: A highly effective tale of literary legerdemain with a darkly fantastic edge. 9/10