Salamander by Thomas Wharton

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The Independent Culture

Reading magical realism may be a bit like eating Marmite. You either love or hate it. But if you don't have the patience to overlook creaky plotlines for the sake of the fantasy, then approach Salamander, by the Canadian writer Thomas Wharton, with trepidation.

Wharton, whose first novel was the acclaimed Icefields, starts well. In 18th-century Europe, Nicholas Flood, an English printer, is hired by Count Ostrov, an eccentric Hungarian aristocrat in love with puzzles and the notion of replacing human flesh with porcelain and metal. Flood is summoned to live in the count's castle, where he is given the task of printing a book of infinity, a concept that he must tease out to the count's approval.

Wharton describes a fantastic array of machines that whet your appetite for the story: beds that trundle on wheels at night; robotniks that push tea trolleys, play the violin and do menial tasks on the letterpress. The castle also houses a library with "a system of hidden tracks, chains, and pulleys" that makes the books move ceaselessly.

But like many counts in castles, Ostrov is a tyrant to his servants and his daughter, Irena. Everyone is treated like a machine. The printer disrupts the established order when he woos the countess by printing a book for her, inscribed quite literally with his desire. "In the spaces between the lines of the sermon, repeated on page after page in unbroken cursive pica, she read her own name."

Irena performs the duties of a diligent wife to the widowed count, who, when he discovers that she has fallen in love, banishes her from the castle and locks Flood into the dungeon. Flood survives by mimicking the actions of producing a book on his press until his former assistant, Djinn, and an orphan, Pica, arrive to rescue him.

Here, the promising beginning starts to unravel. Pica, Djinn and Flood join two of the count's servants and their children aboard his ship, and set out to find Irena. En route, they encounter a huge cast of characters, each with their own story, as they travel from the Ottoman Empire to China, Australia, Africa and England. There are obvious references here to St.Exupéry, and Pica leaves Flood a copy of Gulliver's Travels. Wharton has abandoned convention to recount these adventures, but he stretches the narratives thin and undermines the significance of the journey itself.

Wharton recreates with intriguing detail the Venetian convent where Pica has been raised and Flood's Huguenot family in London. But he draws their nemesis, Abbé Ezequiel, with such broad strokes that he comes close to resembling a cartoon. A pared-down version of this over-complicated story might have allowed Wharton's moments of charm and passion to shine through.

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