#BookReview: Cannonbridge by Jonathon Barnes

cannonbridgeSomething has gone wrong with history in this gripping novel about a lie planted among the greatest works of English fiction.

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…

From Netgalley in exchange for a review.

Matthew Cannonbridge appears to be at every significant moment, or interacting with every significant literary character in the 19th Century.  He arrives in the Italian Villa on a dark and stormy night as Byron and the Shelleys are telling each other ghost stories. He meets Charles Dickens as a young child in the blacking factory. He is a suspect in the Ripper slayings. He talks to Marx whilst the latter is on holiday. Many years after their first meeting, he attempts to fund Charles Dickens’ tours, only for Dickens to ask his friend Wilkie Collins to return the money. Each time we encounter Cannonbridge, we learn a little more, and each time is a little more disturbing.  Cannonbridge has massive blackouts, has no idea when or where he is, and each encounter shows him to be a little more deranged and threatening.

All these touch points are interspersed with the “now” and Dr Toby Judd who is a middle ranking unexciting professor with some experience in Cannonbridge. However, at the start of the book he loses his wife to J.J. Salazar (the Cannonbridge scholar who ends up with the book, the publicity and the girl), and Judd is on a descent into hell. He believes that Cannonbridge is too neat a character, and must have been invented by a much later – and very talented – scholar.  After a very public breakdown and a video of the lecture is loaded to youtube and goes viral – a policeman advises him to get away as he is in danger. Less than 24 hours later, the policeman is dead, and Judd is on the run.

Judd hooks up with a waitress – Gabrielle – who inexplicably believes him and she goes on the run with him. Unbeknownst to him, she is also ex-army, a fact that comes in useful when things (and killers) start catching up with the pair of them.

Judd’s travels take him to a small island off Scotland, where he makes a disturbing discovery that underpins and ultimately proves his theories. Unfortunately he is found by his pursuers, and is returned to London in time for the bicentennial party on the banks of the Thames, the site of Cannonbridge’s death by drowning. However things don’t exactly go according to plan, and it comes down to a near broken Judd to face off against the nightmare that has been a long time coming (I am trying to avoid too many spoilers!).

As the narrative changed between timeperiods there was a change in writing style, with the earlier writings being much more Gothic, flowery and melodramatic.  The modern period was written in a much crisper, shorter style. The significance of the island wasn’t over-egged and the importance of Reynolds bank and the generational support was suitably threatening.

Smallish issue (but big enough to mention): Whilst the majority of the formatting was decent, there was “issues” at chapter and narrative breaks where the font suddenly changed, or the tExT weNT A bIt PeCuliar.

Author website

Jonathan Barnes is the author of two novels, The Somnambulist and The Domino Men. Cannonbridge is his third novel. He contributes regularly to the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review and is the author of several scripts for Big Finish Productions. He is currently writer-in-residence at Kingston University.

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