Sylvow, Douglas Thompson
(2010, Eibonvale Press, £6.99, 304pp)
Back in the day, fix-up novels were relatively common in science fiction. Authors would cobble together a bunch of stories, sellotape a framing narrative in place, and pass off the finished product as a novel. In most such books, the joins were sadly obvious. If there’s a term for the reverse – a novel which comprises standalone excerpts that have been published as short stories – I’m not aware of it. Nonetheless, it’s a fair description of Douglas Thompson’s second novel, Sylvow. Eight of the book’s seventeen chapters have previously seen print: in Ambit Magazine, Dream Catcher, and the British Fantasy Society’s New Horizons and Dark Horizons. While those chapters read perfectly well as short stories, they are also very much of the novel.
Sylvow is a story in many parts about a small group of people who all live in the invented city of Sylvow. However, the city, and the lives of its inhabitants, are slowly being invaded by Nature run rampant. Leo disappeared into the deep woods which ring Sylvow years before, and sends irregular letters commenting on, among other things, Nature’s campaign of conquest. His estranged wife Vivienne takes up with Anton, who had a nervous breakdown but was cured by Franco, and now works as a forest ranger. Franco’s wife Claudia is a vet, and she sees at first hand how the animal and insect kingdoms are responding to Nature’s war on humanity and civilisation. Franco meanwhile is having an affair with Veronika, a young Goth patient.
According to the background notes at the rear of the book, the city of Sylvow is a fusion of Glasgow, Osnabrück and Novogrudek. Certainly it seems at times to have a Middle European air, and the novel’s cast all possess names more common in continental Europe than in the British Isles: Franco, Veronika, Claudia, Vittorio, Nikolaus… Yet there are references to very British institutions and cultural artefacts. It gives Sylvow a somewhat unsettled feel – further exacerbated by Thompson’s prose style, which at times reads Ballardian and at others like the work of an East European fantasist. There are a variety of voices in Sylvow, but not all feel entirely suitable. Yet this too seems in keeping with the story Sylvow tells. Its narrative is episodic, and nominally linear, but not everything in the novel makes sense, or is capable of being understood.
Thompson aims high, but does not always hit his target. He is better when focussing on the surreal than he is at the quotidian. When read as a novel of disconnect, of humanity’s failed attempts to understand, or come to an accommodation with, Nature and her needs, Sylvow works very well indeed. Many of the passages set in the forest showcase some lovely writing indeed. As a novel of the relationships between people, Sylvow is perhaps less successful. The easy familiarity between family members, and between friends, often feels forced, as if Thompson were trying for the mannered tone of Mittel-Europa fiction but instead found himself writing the banal dialogue of a transatlantic mainstream novel. Nonetheless, despite the uneven read, despite its occasionally patchy nature, Sylvow is an intriguing blend of genres. With this novel, and his debut Ultrameta, Thompson has certainly shown he is a name to watch. Once he manages to write mainstream with the same facility he writes surrealism and genre, he’s sure to produce something special.
This review originally appeared in Interzone #233, March-April 2011.