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Gnomon Hardcover – 2017
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In a near-future Britain, a distributed surveillance-democracy called The System knows everything you, and can even spy on your mind. It’s a Panopticon country. But when state investigators then look into the head of a refusenik novelist named Diana Hunter, what they find there is not her life story but that of four other people, spread across thousands of years, all vibrantly real and each utterly impossible – and before they can unravel that puzzle, Diana Hunter, shockingly, dies as a result of the investigation, an unheard of result in a perfect system which protects everyone from harm. That’s where Inspector Mielikki Neith comes in, a staunch believer in The System who is assigned to investigate the Hunter case. The only problem is that the teasing mysteries in the dead woman’s mind may change all that. And these are extraordinary memories, ranging from the life of a banker named Constantine Kyriakos, who finds himself pursued by a shark that may in fact be a god; and an Ethiopian retired pop artist, Berihun Bekele, who picks up his brushes to create a virtual world called The System at the behest of his games’ designer grand-daughter; and Athenaïs Karthagonensis, the jilted lover of one of the Church’s most beloved saints, who seeks to resurrect her dead son with the help of a non-existent miracle; and then finally GNOMON, the acerbic post-human who is plotting to assassinate the next iteration of the Universe . . . The question is whether there is a truth hidden in the noise of all those lives, as Mielikki begins to suspect? Or is all that unfolding experience and drama simply a cover for some kind of attack upon the fabric of the most democratic nation state ever constructed? And the questions just keep coming. Who was Diana Hunter, and why are her books impossible to obtain? And above all, was Diana Hunter innocent all along – worse, could she have been correct to attempt to withstand a perfect, democratic system?
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It was a story that unfolds in your mind as you think back over it. Which is a bit scary as that is exactly what is happening in Inspector Mielikki Neith's head as she works through the Gnomon case.
In order to work the case, Mielikki takes the evidence (which is in effect a brain trawl) into her own brain. It then unfolds and Mielikki is able to view and experience the trawl in order to determine the guilt or otherwise (and in this instance it is not clear) of the subject.
The book has many protagonists, and sometimes I found it hard to work out when a switch between them took place. It is a complex story, probably because the brain is very complex. And somehow this complexity was necessary to the tale to give it its depth. At points I wondered where it was all going, but I think in the end it was proven appropriate. And the end is true!
I was able to get lost in the story, it was helpful during a time of duress for me. It gave me relief and I escaped into Mielikki's life and the lives of those around and in her.
For some people this book may take a bit of getting into, but give it a chance, you may find it becomes quite compelling, and provokes quite a bit of thought.
I received an e-ARC of this novel through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. NetGalley does not allow for paid reviews.
I find it nearly impossible to describe Gnomon. It’s a thriller, a mystery, dystopian (or utopian?), literary, verging in moments on academic. The story unfolds through various interweaving narratives (think David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). Narration shifts through various third person and first person voices, and yet each voice is so distinct that you never have to wonder whose story you’re reading now. Tension ebbs and flows, and the pace is relatively sedate, with long explorations of mythology, politics, catabasis, and steganography. Gnomon makes you work hard but the payoff is beyond worth it. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Thank you to Nick Harkaway and William Heinemann via NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Let me say from the start it is not an easy read. It is not one for the beach and if you need to get up early I wouldn't read it in bed. I did and in future I will re-read it in a comfortable arm chair, a decanter and glass at my side and the 'phone off the hook. The blurb will give you the outline and some clues - I suggest not searching for in depth story analysis you will spoil the trip. You have to, of course, enjoy science/fantasy fiction and be willing to accept off the wall concepts. If you can't then this volume is not for you. If you can then like me you are in for a very enjoyable if puzzling journey. I even surprised myself by staying with it when it went slow - not my natural metre, but the decanter helped. Nick Harkaway has I think produced a classic which will divide critics for years to come. When the inevitable series is picked up by the TV moguls I hope HBO gets the franchise and that Nick Harkaway has the strength to protect his genius. Fives stars I would have given it ten.