Gnomon, which took Harkaway more than three years to complete, is set in a world of ubiquitous surveillance. Pitched as “a mind-bending Borgesian puzzle box of identity, meaning and reality in which the solution steps sideways as you approach it”, it features: a detective who finds herself investigating the very society she believes in, urged on by a suspect who may be an assassin or an ally, hunting through the dreams of a torture victim in search of the key to something she does not yet understand; a banker who is pursued by a shark that swallows Fortune 500 companies; Saint Augustine’s jilted mistress who reshapes the world with miracles; a refugee grandfather turned games designer who must remember how to walk through walls or be burned alive by fascists; and a sociopath who falls backwards through time in order to commit a murder.
I normally read quite quickly – I’ve read 157 books so far this year. But this one took me nearly two weeks to complete. Partly it’s the fact that it is something of a doorstopper at over 700 pages, but the main reason was that early on I took the decision that I wouldn’t speed-read through this one. The prose is too rich, too dense – there are too many allusions and clues scattered throughout and as you may have gathered from the blurb, the structure isn’t all that straightforward, either.
It might have been tempting to have accelerated through it if I hadn’t been enjoying the experience so much. Harkaway is a remarkable writer and this is him at the peak of his capabilities. For all the depth and complexity, I found the book highly readable and engrossing. It would have been a real shame to have thrown away the experience by trying to skim through it. The writing is immersive and each character has their own flavour so that after a while, it only took a couple of lines to realise whose head I was in. Essentially, it is a thriller. But the puzzle is far more of the slow-burn variety, which doesn’t stop there being some jaw-dropping twists near the end.
For all their quirkiness, I was fond of all the characters, though my favourites remained dogged, persistent Inspector Mielikki Neith whose investigation of the untimely death of Diana Hunter in custody triggers the whole chain of events – and fierce, beautiful Athenais, once-mistress to Saint Augustine, before he decided to become so saintly. The characterisation is masterly and as I’m a sucker for character-led stories, it was their vividness and sheer oddness that sucked me in and kept me reading.
I also feel a similar anger that sparks through the book – the apathy of too many of us, the blind belief that if we put in place a whole raft of cameras and electronic surveillance, it will somehow be alright, no matter who ends up at the helm and in charge. This is a remarkable, brave book, deliberately constructed and written on an epic scale. Does it work? Oh yes. I loved it, but my firm advice would be – don’t rush it. If you try reading this one in a hurry, you’ll end up throwing it out of the window – and given its size, it may cause serious injury if it hits someone…
While I obtained the arc of Gnomon from the publisher via NetGalley, this has in no way influenced my unbiased review.