The Wanderer by Timothy J. Jarvis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
It took me a while to read The Wanderer and I’m not entirely sure why. It might’ve been this cursed year – hell, let’s blame that. But I certainly found that as much as I was entranced whenever I perused the book, I wasn’t quick to come back to it.
Curiously, this isn’t the bad thing that I had expected. It meant that each time I returned, I was surprised anew at how bizarre the thing is.
The novel is constructed as an elaborate series of records: letters, pub conversations and apocalypse-typed missives. There’s a whole story about a weird writer (Simon Peterkin) who has disappeared, supposedly to off himself, but who has left a bizarre tale in his wake. There’s continual references to Poe, and an academic approach to the idea of sifting for truth. But then there’s a heavy Melmoth the Wanderer vibe.
I leave it up to the reader, then, to decide what nature of thing The Wanderer really is.
And there’s also murderous Punch and Judy shows. Because of course there are. They’re the first clue that what’s happening isn’t straight disappearance or standard gumshoe fare: a puppeteer-free booth crops up in unlikely places, offering shows filled with gouts of blood. That’s the way to do it! rings in the ears of characters who, like the reader, are desperate to find what the fuck is going on.
The audience was always, aged, and I recognized many of the same faces each time. It was all odd, passing odd, but I never suspected malignancy (perhaps because I was preoccupied by work: it was busy at the office then). It wasn’t till the evening I, lacking patience, got off the bus, broken down but soon fixed, I realized a weird evil was at work.
I won’t spoil the story too much here, but suffice it to say the meat of the narrative is split between the stories and backstories of a pub meeting for people with uncanny experiences, and the recollection of a narrator at some point distant to that snug evening. Jarvis is always pretty clear about what’s happening when, though you will likely have to adjust your sense of timescale to accommodate all the action.
In essence, the people in the pub have been marked in a particular way; they have each had an experience which has left them changed, and apart from their fellow humans. Through sharing their stories, they hope – as do we – to be at least able to name what has happened to them.
Whether that happens? Well, let’s just say that there’s a solid amount of weird/SFF action en route to the denouement. There’s always a weird smell about, like a little-used room in a great-aunt’s house, and it does propel the reader onward, albeit (in my case) in fits and starts.
In the end, I don’t think The Wanderer is as successful as it might have been. There’s bits where you can see the duct-tape holding it together, and the way it comes to an all-in-a-rush revelation at the end seems a little hamfisted. However, the creeping feeling of dread, and the overwhelming tang of weirdness that suffuses the work more than makes up for these shortcomings. As a first novel, it’s a goddamn cracker, and I would like to see what sort of liminal perversities Jarvis comes up with in the future.