A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #39:-
LONDON REVENANT: CONRAD WILLIAMS
The Do-Not Press pb, 331pp, £7.99
A serial killer is murdering people on the London underground, pushing them into the paths of speeding trains, and Adam Buckley thinks he knows who the maniac is, a strange and bestial man he saw one night while walking home. Adam is on the periphery of a group of people who are exploring the backwaters of London and discovering the secret places that the city keeps to itself, but with the hint that such knowledge is both its own reward and also a terrible burden. He suffers from narcolepsy, falling asleep at the most inconvenient of moments, a condition that has jinxed his ability to be just like other people, with a career and romantic relationships, but there is the suggestion of something more, that Adam is not really unconscious at such times but has another life in which he is Monck, the member of a tribe existing in the subterranean levels beneath London and in search of a fabled place of sanctuary for their kind. In this alternate scheme of things The Pusher is a renegade member of the tribe who has gone above ground and now threatens to expose them through his murderous actions, which Monck has been sent to stop, though there is a danger that he too has been beguiled by life on the surface.
This is a beautifully written book, as one would expect from Williams, with the characters perfectly realised and the setting described in terms that bring London to vivid life, making the city a character itself, secretive and mysterious, with all kinds of joys and dangers held close to its chest. About the plot though I’m in two minds. The idea of a secret race living in the wainscoting of our own society is a familiar one (e.g. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Christopher Fowler’s Roofworld), but Williams doesn’t quite do enough work to make either the concept or Adam’s double life seem entirely plausible, while with the apocalyptic events at the book’s finale he gives in to the temptation for a grand, over the top gesture, reminiscent of the train crash that terminated the otherwise low key Head Injuries, though with somewhat more justification in this instance and greater subtlety in the rendition. And yet, regardless of any misgivings I might have, there is a sense in which this shifting tapestry with all its uncertainties is entirely appropriate. Monck/Adam is an unreliable narrator, most of the time not sure himself what is going on and, with some of the most gripping sequences revealed as dreams, the possibility can’t be ruled out that we are meant to take all this as hallucinatory. In the end it comes back to the sheer quality of the writing. While one might wish for a more obviously cohesive plot and a little less ambiguity, all the minutiae of Adam’s existence, the tone of voice of the people in his life, deft touches of detail such as the way in which his presence kills flowers, the drink, drugs and casual sex culture of which he is a part, are all perfectly rendered on the page and so I can’t help but like this book, though I wish I understood it more. It is every bit as much of a mystery, as multi-faceted and fascinating, by turns captivating and infuriating, glamorous and undeniably grim, as the city which it celebrates, and perhaps that, if any, is the point Williams is trying to make, that contradiction is rooted in the heart of us all and in everything we create, be it a city or a novel.