Sam Thompson's Booker- longlisted debut rests on a premise similar to that of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, comprising subtly linked tales, here concerning a nightmarish city. The title story is transfixing. A wheedling voice tries to lure a female immigrant from her incarcerated boyfriend. The narrator is craven, creepy, revealing that he has been spying, almost in a supernatural way. ("Locked doors aren't a problem.") Despite attempting to ingratiate himself, he is chillingly cold about the shocking events commonplace in this city of extremes: strangers collapsing on the city's streets; terrorist attacks that force ordinary people into contact with the "monsters" who survive in the city's underbelly.
In Thompson's city the majority live in deprivation. Slums are described with visceral power. The "half-demolished high-rise with the open sockets of bedrooms" conjures up a bleeding mouth with rotten molars gouged out. In "The Song of Serelight Fair", a rickshaw boy falls for a volatile female passenger. She takes him to society events where the inhumane treatment of the working class is taken to dystopian extremes: serving staff are fitted with music boxes in their chests to entertain clients, and punished if they don't comply with passes made by the patrons. A play mirrors the boy's fate, but he fails to take warning.
These first two stories epitomise the book's strange, haunting motifs. Evil looms. In "A Good Slaughter", an abattoir worker is convinced that his boss is the city's notorious murderer – but he may be dangerously deluded. In "Gallanthea", an entertainingly malign pair of heavies, the oxymoronic Cherub mobsters, warn a detective off an assignment. The city sweats, a plague-like illness causing doctors to don the sinister beaks of old and paint red crosses on victims' doors. Dialogue veers between Cockney and private-dick American, but details are joyous: bright light on a hangover thrusts "white lances down ... optic strings"; "blackheads stuck out of his nose like peppercorns". The ending is dissatisfying for its refuge into non-realism.
While the running thread of the Flaneur character, wandering the streets with ominous purpose, is intriguing, it feels like a cop-out that most of the tales end in fantasy. The characters who wear a lapel carnation throughout also seem token, like the ubiquitous birthmarks in Cloud Atlas. We see the power balance of relationships: a student in the hip crowd allows an admirer on to the periphery of his life to bolster his own ego; a man strings his girlfriend along, despite being bored. But both these stories would have ended better without them returning to the common theme of the city's murderer or monster. Thompson should not be afraid of the ordinary, it is often the residence of the extraordinary.
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