Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes
Flamboyant, charismatic Matthew Cannonbridge was touched by genius, the most influential creative mind of the 19th century, a prolific novelist, accomplished playwright, the poet of his generation. The only problem is, he should never have existed and beleaguered, provincial, recently-divorced 21st Century don Toby Judd is the only person to realise something has gone wrong with history.
All the world was Cannonbridge’s and he possessed, seemingly, the ability to be everywhere at once. Cannonbridge was there that night by Lake Geneva when conversation between Byron, Shelley and Mary Godwin turned to stories of horror and the supernatural. He was sole ally, confidante and friend to the young Dickens as Charles laboured without respite in the blacking factory. He was the only man of standing and renown to regularly visit Oscar Wilde in prison. Tennyson’s drinking companion, Kipling’s best friend, Robert Louis Stevenson’s counsellor and guide – Cannonbridge’s extraordinary life and career spanned a century, earning him a richly-deserved place in the English canon.
But as bibliophiles everywhere prepare to toast the bicentenary of the publication of Cannonbridge’s most celebrated work, Judd’s discovery will lead him on a breakneck chase across the English canon and countryside, to the realisation that the spectre of Matthew Cannonbridge, planted so seamlessly into the heart of the 19th Century, might not be so dead and buried after all…
The thing that struck me initially about this novel was the premise. Two men separated by many years, but nevertheless very much connected. One exerts direct influence over some of the greatest literary minds that have ever lived, and the other is compelled to discover the reasons why. Cannonbridge feels like a surreal game of cat and mouse that plays out over the decades.
Matthew Cannonbridge remains a mystery throughout. Eloquent, elegant and more than a little perplexing, he is a walking enigma. Those that meet him are initially charmed by his impeccable manners, but there is a darkness that lies within. Cannonbridge, however, is far more than he first appears. Uncovering the details of his shady past, and his potential future, are what drives the plot forward
Poor old Toby Judd. He is the very antithesis of Matthew Cannonbridge. Where Cannonbridge is enigmatic and suave, Judd is bland and unremarkable. Judd’s wife has left him for a more popular, dynamic colleague. His career is in tatters and no one is willing to believe his extravagant claims. He has lost everything in an effort to uncover the truth. A lesser man would role over and give up the ghost, but not Dr Judd. Drawing on hitherto undiscovered reserves of inner-strength, he is determined to discover the answer to the question that is plaguing his every waking moment. What is the query that has become Judd’s complete obsession? That has become the ultimate question? Who or what is Matthew Cannonbridge,
A whole host of nineteenth century luminaries pop-up in one form or another. Everyone from Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, to Oscar Wilde and Karl Marx make an appearance, to name but a few. Matthew Cannonbridge drifts in and out of their lives in a seemingly random way. His appearances, however, always leave a distinct impression. Each time he appears there seems to be a continuing evolution in his character. There is a gradual metamorphosis occurring and it is fascinating to behold.
Is this book for everyone? In all honesty, probably not. Put simply, Cannonbridge is literary Marmite. Some will be intrigued and buy into the premise entirely, while others will undoubtedly be irritated. Personally, I fall squarely into the first camp. Barnes does a hell of a job of drip-feeding clues without ever giving too much away. The narrative is peppered with tiny moments that, in hindsight, offer subtle clues. I realised at one point, I was two-thirds of the way through and I still wasn’t entirely clear what was going on. Normally, this sort of plotting would drive me utterly bonkers but in this case it just works. The counterpoint of Judd’s investigations in the present and Cannonbridge’s random appearances in the past keep the reader guessing right up to the last.
I know I have danced around a lot of the meat in this novel, but this is entirely deliberate on my part. In this instance it’s the discovery that drives the narrative and kept this reader riveted. Take it from me, you need to read Cannonbridge yourself and reach your own conclusions. Jonathan Barnes and his creation are masters of misdirection. Cannonbridge is a fantastical shell-game with some wonderfully dark moments. I’d recommend it to anyone who loves a good mystery with a classical edge. I’ve not read any of Barnes’ other novels based on Cannonbridge, I’ll have to remedy this gross oversight quick smart.
Defying anything close to resembling categorisation, this novel manages to be many things at once. Part historical adventure, part modern day thriller, with a healthy dose of the fantastical chucked in for good measure. Highly recommended.
Canonbridge is published by Solaris and is available from 12th February.