I got this book as part of LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer programme, and probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d simply seen it in the bookshop. But the description in the ER programme intrigued me, and I’m glad I read it.
It’s a multi-layered pastiche and parody of the old pulp African adventure stories, with two interlocking stories set early in the twentieth century, narrated by one of the protagonists as an old man late in the twentieth century. As the novel opens the narrator, Tommy Thomson, is scraping a living as a young man by ghost writing pulp adventure stories. He’s frustrated by the need to pander to the extreme racism and disregard for facts of the pulp market. He loses the ghost writing job, but is offered the chance to write a true African adventure story — ghost-writing the story of a man who is awaiting trial for the murder of his two employers on a gold-hunting expedition in the Congo.
Tommy is drawn ever deeper into Marcus Garvey’s story. It’s very like the pulp adventures he’s written before, but with one twist — this time it’s a tale of brutal and amoral English aristocrats abusing first the black Africans and then a strange race of underground people, white but not entirely human, with a low-class servant who is the flawed hero. This tale of derring-do is interwoven with the story of Tommy’s own life over the course of the years he writes Garvey’s story, interrupted by his service in the First World War. Tommy thinks of his own life as boring and humdrum, but it’s an enchanting read with some fascinating secondary characters.
There are multiple levels of unreliable narration, so things aren’t quite as they seem. Part of the game is deciding who is unreliable and how far, and the author plays fair in the end. In the meantime you get a cracking read, with a lot of homages to other works.
I enjoyed the book a great deal, but I did have some minor problems with it. There are a lot of anachronisms, a couple of which threw me out of the story (in particular, singing “God save the Queen” in court at a time when a King was on the throne). These felt like mistakes by the author rather than being deliberate. One of the signals that part of the story is unreliable simply doesn’t work if you’re used to reading science fiction or magic realism. If you’re an sf fan, switch into mainstream reading protocols when you’re reading this book. And be warned that there is some gruesome imagery which might be a bit much for some readers.
One particular point — this is a translation of a novel written in Catalan. Translations vary a lot in quality and can sometimes feel stiff and lifeless, but this one is excellent. It flows very well and is a joy to read.
Enormous fun, and well worth the time.