Friday, February 6, 2015

Cannonbridge - Jonathan Barnes

Cannonbridge starts with an unusual premise – that there is a writer, Matthew Cannonbridge, the greatest author of the Victorian age.  The narrative breaks into two strands – the first, following Cannonbridge and his exploits through the Victorian period, and the second, a modern day piece centred on a lecturer of literature, who becomes convinced that Matthew Cannonbridge never actually existed.

The Cannonbridge sections are written in a sort of faux-gothic style, which actually works very well, given the time period and the subject. It may be my imagination suggesting that the prose changed slightly to match the tone of the various authors Cannonbridge meets during his travels, but it wouldn’t surprise me either – this is a text very aware of itself. The prose, of these sections feels almost liquid, and makes for a very satisfying read. The actual events of the story are a bit…vague. Cannonbridge surfaces in times and places, seemingly near to other literary characters, and impacts on their lives – with variable results, though with a constant – that the man feels himself pursued, though by what isn’t entirely clear. The portrayal of Cannonbridge is largely done through action, rather than introspection – his supporting cast drawn well, but perhaps not with enough depth in some cases.

The more modern sections are written as a bit of a potboiler thriller, following the unlikely hero of Doctor Toby Judd, an expert in Cannonbridge literature who comes to suspect that Cannonbridge is actually an elaborate literary hoax, and  notices that other people who think this way appear to be dying rather precipitously. From there, the narrative carries a fair bit of action, and these portions are perhaps more obviously a page-turner than those set in Victorian England. Curiously though, the action is laced with periods of introspection, especially in the earlier segments from Judd – and these are quite whimsical, lyrical, and, as things progress, a bit depressing – presumably as intended. Again, the supporting cast is decent enough, though at times a bit convenient, and with motivations not fully explored.

The two threads culminate together at the close of the book, with results which, frankly, were rather unexpected – a change in tone and direction. Still, it was all quite plausible, and interesting enough – but not as effective, I think, as the rest of the text. The close had surprise, but not impact, and seemed determined to stack reveals on top of each other, perhaps to the detriment of the book as a whole.

Overall then, a pleasant read, with some interesting ideas, and a solid, occasionally exceptional narrative, with a conclusion which may delight or disgust in equal measure. 

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