Every city is made of stories: stories that intersect and diverge, stories of the commonplace and the strange, of love and crime, of ghosts and monsters.
In this city an asylum seeker struggles to begin a new life, while a folk musician pays with a broken heart for a song and a butcher learns the secrets of the slaughterhouse. A tourist strays into a baffling ritual and a child commits an incalculable crime; private detectives search the streets for their archenemies and soulmates and, somewhere in the shadows, a figure which might once have been human waits to tell its tale.
Communion Town is a city in ten chapters: a place imagined differently by each citizen, mixing the everyday with the gothic and the uncanny; a place of voices half-heard, sights half-glimpsed and desires half-acknowledged.
It’s been a while time since I’ve read a contemporary, mainstream work, that could be categorised as ‘literary fiction’, the last one was in August last year, and that one had a strong genre slant, as it was a post-apocalyptic tale. And while Communion Town certainly has genre elements, for me it falls squarely in the literary fiction section—and yes, I agree, literary fiction is as much a genre as speculative fiction, but that’s a wholly different discussion and an entirely different post. This collection of ten stories is difficult to describe in one adjective. Interesting doesn’t do it justice, because it’s more than that, it was a thought-provoking read. At the same time, I found reading it really hard work, having to reread passages quite often and generally reading at a slower pace than I usually do. But while at times a bit of a slog, it was never boring. So I find myself at a bit of a loss as to how to judge this book. Taken separately, I’d say many of these stories are quite good, while those that don’t stand as well alone are enhanced by the whole. However, I don’t know whether I’d say that the collection as such worked for me, mostly because despite all being set in the same city, I kept looking for a further cohesion between the tales, a theme if you will, which they all shared. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it, but I’m not sure whether that’s a failing of the text or me failing as a reader.
In fact, there were some returning threads, such as the Flaneûr and the man who wants to share his story. There is a lot of loneliness and lost people. Communion Town isn’t a happy place. Beyond that the true nature of the city remained elusive. Sometimes it felt like Victorian London, sometimes like a place in a totalitarian state behind the Iron Curtain. Sometimes it would seem any modern, contemporary city. But most of the time these senses of time and place got disturbed but an unexpected element from a different time, because a character is said to wear jeans or to use an anachronistic device. In addition there are lots of different genre influences, but nothing strong enough to tip the collection solidly into the speculative or crime fiction arena. There is some horror, some supernatural elements, lots of gothic and a large crime component. In fact, The Significant City of Lazarus Glass is largely shaped like a Holmesian mystery.
Thompson conducts some interesting prose experiments, such as in the titular story were the reader is being put in the seat of Ulya and the story is told in the second person by a nameless narrator. It creates immediacy, confusion and irritation. Immediacy, because the you addressed seems to be the reader, confusion because it never becomes clear who the narrator is and why you’re having this conversation, and irritation because the narrator is rather smug and keeps telling you what you felt. Gallathea features a circular narrative, where the story starts with a question circling round to the beginning again, but never quite answering the question that starts off the story. Good Slaughter told is partly in the first person present, shifting to first person past and back to present, creating a sense that the narrator zoned out for a few seconds and the story is told in that short flash before the action resumes. The stories often feature nameless main characters and/or narrators – such as in The City Room, The Song of Serelight Fair, and Outside the Days – which I’m not really used to.
My favourites were unsurprisingly the ones that served up the most familiar elements to provide some footing to get my bearings story-wise. They were The Song of Serelight Fair which is a love story and the story of how a relationship and the expectations of the other can stifle one’s soul; The Significant City of Lazarus Glass, which is both a murder mystery and a meditation of the nature of memory and the possibility of the mnemonic techniques, such as the memory palace; and The City Room, which didn’t really have any strong genre elements, but whose main character, who displayed some symptoms of having a disorder on the autism spectrum, was quite compelling to me as I have a lot of experience with kids that have an autistic disorder. All three of these gave lots of food for thought, despite being hung from more recognizable tropes, especially The Significant City of Lazarus Glass and its fascinating play with memory, reality, and sanity.
Again, I struggled with Communion Town. I found it hard to find its soul, though arguably this was the city, which I never got a true feel for and as a consequence didn’t connect to. However, there are lovely passages and flashes of beauty in the text. In the end, I think Communion Town deserves to be read for its thought-provoking concepts. You might love it, enjoy it, or hate it, but it’ll exercise your brain. In the end, I’d recommend it, but with the following caveat: don’t go into this thinking you’ll get a nice, quick read; go into it expecting to be challenged.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.
As an added bonus, the publisher’s posted a video to Youtube in which Sam Thompson discusses his inspirations. I found it quite interesting and as I watched it after I’d read it and written the review also rather enlightening.