Communion Town: A City in Ten Chapters, by Sam Thompson, Fourth Estate, RRP£14.99, 288 pages
Long-listed for this year’s Man Booker prize, Sam Thompson’s debut novel, Communion Town, certainly fits the criteria set out by chair of the judges Peter Stothard that “a text has to reveal more, the more often you read it”.
Like Heraclitus’s river, into which you can never step twice, the city at the heart of Thompson’s novel is ever-changing. It reflects in some way our own experiences of cities – that each is unique to every one of its inhabitants, since we all bring our own perspective.
On the surface, the book has a hint of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo spins from his imagination fantastical places to give Kublai Khan a sense of his empire. Yet every city Polo conjures is, in some way, Venice. Communion Town is a stranger beast. Formed of 10 loosely overlapping chapters, each not quite a short story in any traditional sense, nor building into a coherent whole that might be called a novel, the book shows us 10 characters leading 10 very different lives in what is nominally the same city. Each tale is told in a different style, one from a child’s point of view, another seemingly transcribed from an interrogation room, a third given a science fiction-like veneer and yet another in a hard-boiled noir-ish style.
Thompson’s city is a hypnotising jumble of locations that throw up half memories of real places. Is it a piece of rogue taxidermy, a patchwork of London, Paris and New York? But, if so, how to explain the fish stalls on the sea front or the olive groves in the countryside beyond? Even the names, rich in strangeness, could have been lifted from the street map of your own city’s lesser-known neighbourhoods: Impasto Street, Part Bridge, Glory Part, Ectarine Walk. They are familiar yet alien.
Thompson takes his epilogue from the prologue to Plautus’s play Menaechmi (the inspiration for Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors) about mistaken identity. “This city is Epidamnus while this story is being told: when another one is told it will become another town.” It’s a request by Plautus for his play’s audience to suspend their disbelief, to project themselves into the streets of Epidamnus, the Albanian town that today is known as Durrës, and to accept that the actors will all be playing different roles tomorrow.
In that sense Communion Town is a very literary and playful book (it is perhaps no surprise that Thompson teaches English at Oxford University). The standout story here is “The Significant City of Lazarus Glass”, in which the great detective Peregrine Fetch sets out to solve the murders of three of the city’s finest private investigators, all killed on the same night.
At the heart of the riddle lies the idea of memory palaces: the technique allows incredible recall by creating a building around which you can walk in your mind and where you will remember everything you place within it. Peregrine’s fellow detective Electra Cavendish-Peake discovered the usefulness of the technique for solving crimes: “For where does the detective live, if not in a memory city, a city that is less a physical place than a world of codes and symbols? Does she not, in her mind, walk the streets at all times, in search of the meanings concealed there?”
The act of reading is often an act of detective work: weighing signs and symbols, deciphering meaning. Reading Communion Town challenges you to be on the look-out for clues, acutely aware of shifts in the fabric of the city. It is about stories, about the imaginative landscape we all create and the act of reading or communing with the stories we tell and the stories we’re told.
Although the strangeness and lack of coherence will put off many readers, and some of the earlier stories are mannered and formal, Thompson is a talent to watch and Communion Town is a book that repays the alert reader.