Sam Thompson, Communion Town (2012)
Communion Town has a quote from China Miéville on the front. That’s handy, because it is just the sort of book I could imagine having a quote from China Miéville on the front – which is to say that it’s a speculative novel (collection?) which is intensely about the city and the experience of urban life. In some ways, it is a conceptual opposite of Hawthorn & Child: where Keith Ridgway’s novel is all about thwarting and denying story, Sam Thompson’s debut is built on the premise that everyone has their own story – and, in a city, they all jostle up against one another.
So, we have ten stories/chapters, all set in the same fictional city (unnamed – Communion Town itself is one particular district, but the name also signals the idea of disparate people coming together in a single place). It’s a non-specific city, but feels less like a bit of everywhere thrown together than like a version of London whose reality has been stretched and twisted: there’s a metro rather than a Tube, and olive groves in the surrounding countryside, but the whole patchwork atmosphere of the place is very reminiscent of London. Thompson has a knack for coming up with evocative place names – Sludd’s Liberty, Cento Hill, Rosamunda – that further enhance the sense of untold stories taking place out of sight.
But what of the stories within sight? The first, entitled ‘Communion Town’, has echoes of Miéville in its tale of two asylum seekers interrogated by an unknown agency, a terrorist plot by a group called the Cynics, and talk of ‘monsters’ beneath the city streets. This is the first of many perceptual ambiguities in the book, and I have to say it’s one of the most harrowingly effective that I’ve come across in some time. Depending on what you interpret the ‘monsters’ to be, the implications of the ending range from uncomfortable to downright shocking.
Then we move to the second chapter, ‘The Song of Serelight Fair’, and suddenly we’re in a different world – or, rather, the same world, but filtered through the perspective of such different characters that it might as well be different. This is more of a love story, in which a student moves into the circles of a girl from a more privileged background, and soon finds himself out of his depth. But, again, there’s that added fantastic dimension, this time waiters who appear and behave like automata, right down to having music emanating from their chests. Are they mechanical? People forced to wear costumes? Or – perhaps most chillingly – is this the way that the privileged set perceive those lower in the social order?
So the book continues, with each chapter providing a different window on this city, making the place anew in the process. ‘The Significant City of Lazarus Glass’ is a distilled golden-age detection, in which the city becomes a web of riddles and outlandish crimes – that’s if it isn’t just a giant memory palace. ‘The Rose Tree’ is a tall tale told down a café, which paints the city as a place of dark corners, where strange transformations await the unwary. ‘The City Room’ tells of a bright (though possibly haunted) childhood world, where the city of Thompson’s book may or may not be a boy’s home-made model.
Like, I suspect, many people, I first heard of Communion Town when it was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize. I hope that won’t be the last we hear of this fabulous kaleidoscope of a book – that its full story has yet to be told.
31st January 2013 at 8:11 pm
You liked it rather more than I did, perhaps. Certainly you review it with more economy and focus than I did.
2nd February 2013 at 9:30 pm
Thanks for the comment, Adam – but your link wasn’t working, so I’ve corrected it.
21st February 2013 at 1:20 pm
I saw very mixed reviews of this one. Glad to see a positive one, though places which are redolent but non-specific tend not to fly for me. I tend to find books about places which are rooted in a place more interesting, Chandler’s Los Angeles, Hamilton’s London.
21st February 2013 at 1:32 pm
Hi, Max. Yeah, I can see this book not being everyone’s cup of tea, though it was certainly mine.
places which are redolent but non-specific tend not to fly for me
Interesting to see you say that when I know you like Viriconium. I guess Communion Town is really the antithesis of the kind of specificity you mention, because its point is that its fictional city is all places to all people.
21st February 2013 at 2:41 pm
Whatever rules or preferences I may have, good enough writing can always overcome them. That definitely applies for Viriconium. Also, oddly, it did seem real. Perhaps because most fantasy cities make sense, and Viriconium doesn’t. The lack of rationality somehow adds to the sense of possibility.
On that subject, Newhon feels to me like a real city somehow, perhaps again because its oddities are so odd. Real cities are contradictory and strange, but so many fictional ones are somehow bloodless. I guess Thompson avoids that to be fair.
29th May 2020 at 4:51 pm
Since you picked this up again to focus on I’ve bought a copy (virtually – I got it on Kindle). Not sure when I’ll get to read it but we’ll see.