7 July 2016

Hunters & Collectors

Hunters & Collectors
Image from www.penguin.co.uk
M Suddain
Jonathan Cape, 6 July 2016
PB, 504pp
Source: Advance copy kindly provided by publisher.

This book was like nothing I'd read recently, or in fact at all (the closest are perhaps Night Film by Marisha Presel - but that is still very different - or from another perspective Viriconium by M John Harrison - but again, different).

To begin with, take the setting. Even after finishing the book I wasn't clear whether the journeys of John Tamberlain were interplanetary trips, or took place on the face of this world between cities or city states (there are some familiar placenames, among the alien-sounding ones) or on some other world or even in a different kind of cosmology, where our idea of a "world" doesn't hold at all. There is talk of East and West being opposed regions, but it's very sketchy, and the maps only add to the mystery. (Are they maps? Charts? They seem to have a mathematical regularity, as though the whole story is set in some kind of fractal space: I wanted to tear out the separate leaves, with their strange elliptical curves, to see if they would fit together into a bigger whole).

Then, there is the sheer... I don't know... effect of the book. Suddain creates an extraordinary and distinctive tone in this book, utterly suited to the story and the strange, shifting characters.

Here is Tamberlain's account of something that happened when he was seven:
My father had tried to ostensibly discipline me, while secretly congratulating me behind her [his mother's] back. She'd caught him, they'd fought, and I'd run off, spending several weeks on the streets. (And when I say 'on the streets' I mean I sold the watch I'd got for my seventh birthday, used the money to find a few undervalued first editions in a local book market, sold them to a dealer for a modest profit, and checked myself into a reasonably priced pension run by a woman who collected giant crickets.)  I stayed there until the private detective hired by my mother tracked me down. He told me a few tricks to avoid being tracked next time...
That is the book in microcosm - the slightly surreal nature of what happens, Tamberlain's penchant for travel (but always in comfort) and the good things in life, coupled with his haphazard fortune and bizarre family background. (We're told at one point that his mother was executed by machine gun: but not why or by whom - the book's full of mysteries like that).

Tamberlain seems to be something akin to a blogger (nickname: The Tomahawk) making a very good living from anonymous, scathing restaurant reviews ("stealth attacks"). The opening of the book, told though his letters and diaries, including some rather testy correspondence with his fans, sees him travel (the universe? the world? Both or neither?) occasionally returning to Monsterat's, the restaurant run by his childhood friend, Nanse.

Then things seem to go wrong. Through no fault of his own, Tamberlain wrecks Nanse's life then gets into deep, deep trouble himself. In the later part of the book, he's in reduced circumstances, his reputation gone, and pursued by enemies. He does, however, have a fanatically loyal agent (who he calls Beast) and bodyguard (Gladys, a former Water Bear). Together they take on the challenge of finding the semi-mythical Hotel Grand Skies, known only through rumour and conjecture, there to enjoy one perfect meal...

In between we get weirdly familiar yet distorted history (invasions, revolutions, dictatorship, massacres), increasingly desperate attempts by Tamberlain at self justification, at explaining how he meant no harm, it was all a terribly mistake (his account would be hard to believe, if everything else in the book wasn't so odd anyway) and a distinct impression that someone - or something - has noticed him. There are bizarre and deadly encounters, such as with a heavily pregnant woman and two gangsters on a train at sea, which Tamberlain seems to shrug off: we're given the impression that his work involves a great deal of actual violence - as well as deception.

But that's only the starter. The Hotel Grand Skies episode is the main course of this book - in which things REALLY turn weird. It's like a collision between The Wicker Man, Bladerunner and Hotel Babylon - with an added side order of blood and guts. Truly, truly strange, with at least two levels of mystery - will the fractious, ill matched threesome ever get away with all their bits intact? And what the blazes is actually going on? Suddain is tricksy with the answers: to a degree we're left to choose what we want to believe - this book won't resolve neatly.

Through all this, Tamberlain's obsession with "his meal" becomes increasingly discordant, increasingly unhinged. It's bizarre, bizarre bizarre but truly riveting and while Tamberlain is often a truly insufferable character, I actually did find myself warming to him by the end.

It's a hard book to describe. You really have to read it. For those who like this sort of thing it is a wondrous read - and I loved it. I suspect that it isn't for everyone, but do give it a try: if you're not going to get on with it I think you'll know quite soon.

Bewilderingly wonderful.

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