A review by jdglasgow
The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes


I feel pretty confident that THE SOMNAMBULIST by Jonathan Barnes gets 2.5 stars from me, but because Goodreads doesn’t offer a half-star option, the question comes down to whether it’s a 2.5 stars rounded up to 3, or rounded down to 2. I’m hoping that writing this out will help me clarify.

The book is told from the perspective of a third-person narrator who hints that they will play a part in the story at some point, and who makes little asides about the narrative in a manner which to me felt strongly reminiscent of Lemony Snicket, although I’m sure the conceit is not unique to the A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS series. It centers primarily on a magician and amateur detective named Edward Moon whose sidekick is the mute, milk-chugging, seemingly invincible giant who goes by the name “The Somnambulist”. Why this character is named “the Somnambulist” is but one of many mysteries which will go unanswered by the book – why it is that he is impervious to swords and knives is another. I don’t necessarily view the choice not to answer these questions as a failing, except insomuch as I get the sense that Barnes himself doesn’t know the answer either. That feeling that the author is kind of making shit up as he goes with no real eye toward coherence makes what would otherwise be a respectable choice into something a little more frustrating. It turns out not to be a mystery of the book so much as just weirdness for its own sake. That description is maybe giving too much credit, in fact; it’s not really weirdness for the sake of weirdness, but weirdness as a stand-in for characterization.

Moon gets caught up in a mystery which begins with a prostitute bringing a man to a bedroom at the top floor of a strange building, at which point she transforms into his mother who harangues him for being a disappointment until a monster crashes in through the window and throws him to the ground below, killing him. Before the case is complete, Moon will have made connections with a shadowy government organization called the Directorate, a medium who seems to be legitimate, a circus of sideshow freaks, a strange religious cult which may or may not worship the poet Samuel Coleridge, and a severe corporation going by the name Love & Love & Love & Love. If you’re thinking that all of this at least makes sense once it is tied together at the end, you’d be sadly mistaken. In fact, the ending is a jumbled mess with no clear motive animating the Big Bad who reveals himself as being behind the whole chain of events. There’s a nod toward a desire for Pantisocracy, a utopian society where all people rule equally, but nothing that happens supports that philosophy or explains how or why any of the events of the book point toward it.

The ending – alright, let’s just get into SPOILER territory here – is when an ominous warning Moon has been receiving about disaster striking finally comes to pass. It turns out that one of the leaders of the religious cult, a Reverend Doctor Tan, is also the leader of the corporation… or maybe they’re one and the same?... and he’s somehow brainwashed 1,000 people into committing brutal acts of maiming and murder, all in the name of this Pantisocracy (I think Barnes just thought that word was funny); they’ve been convinced to participate, in part because Tan has Frankensteined the poet Samuel Coleridge back to life as a glowing green monster with super-strength, and that… is persuasive, I guess? Then there’s a Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum pair of twins who sow chaos by, er, also killing people indiscriminately – twins who magically appear and disappear. Then there’s a man who claims to be living his life backward, and is… maybe a ghost or something? Tan, it turns out, is the needling narrator of the book, but toward what end? He doesn’t seem to sincerely believe in the philosophy he’s trying to enforce upon the world – his defense of it is so half-hearted. This “twist” doesn’t feel real. It does not feel like the book was written from the perspective of the “bad guy” in general, but more specifically it does not make any effort to justify or rationalize his actions. Actions, which again, are bizarre.

All that said, I generally liked the characters. I thought Cribb, the backwards-living guy, was an intriguing character! As were the sadistic twins! I generally liked Moon and the Somnambulist, although there was a point early on where Moon dismisses Arthur Conan Doyle as a hack, which is kind of rich because there is so very little by way of investigation or deduction done here even though Moon is putatively a detective.

I guess I don’t have a lot more to say, honestly. I made my main points. I was recently re-reading my review of WHEN THE MOON TURNS BLUE by Pamela Terry and honestly my feelings on that book were quite similar to my views on this one. That is, I enjoyed spending time with the characters but the major throughline (in that book, a discussion of racism in the context of the statue of a Confederate general being destroyed) was handled so poorly that it overshadowed what might have been decent about it. Similarly, when I think back on THE SOMNAMBULIST my main recollection is going to be of how disjointed and poorly executed its finale was more than any feeling of affinity for some of the characters. I gave WHEN THE MOON TURNS BLUE two stars and I can’t see any reason to rank this one higher. It’s decided, then. Consider this case clarified.