Communion Town (2012) by Sam Thompson
Subtitled A City in Ten Chapters, Sam Thompson's debut is a collection of ten short stories: all are set in the same unnamed city, and all have loose connections with the others. The city itself remains an enigma, though its many districts have colourful, slightly offbeat and evocative names - Sludd's Liberty, Glory Part, Low Glinder. The narrative style varies enormously, from the cool, detached tone typical of literary fiction, present in (my favourite) 'Outside the Days', which recalls the best bits of Great House by Nicole Krauss, to the noirish romp of 'Gallathea' and 'The Significant City of Lazarus Glass', which is a bit like a dark spoof of an Agatha Christie mystery. The many narrators and their vastly different experiences in different locales of the city create a patchwork effect, as if you are studying something huge from a number of different angles, while the whole remains too vast to perceive. The experience of reading Communion Town is much like that of exploring an unfamiliar city on foot - both disorientating and seductive, and full of sharp turns with the occasional dead end.
There is an element of something strange and supernatural to almost all of the stories, giving the book as a whole an unmistakeable air of fantasy. This much I expected from the fact that it has won plaudits from the likes of China Miéville. However, this is not actually a fantasy novel: rather, each of the stories has a touch of something weird and inexplicable, with the most prominent example being the 'monsters' that stalk the city at night, which are never quite described or explained properly. Most of the interactions that take place within the stories are recognisable, even mundane, and easy for anyone to relate to, but their surroundings and circumstances are not. I won't pretend I understood everything that was going on in the stories or precisely how they were all linked, and this may be frustrating for some readers, but for me it just deepened the intrigue.
Communion Town is one of those books I want to go back and re-read straight away. I miss being immersed in its world, and I wish there had been ten, twenty more stories about the city. I want to pick apart the layers and puzzle out the connections, figure out who each character was to each of the others. I borrowed my copy from the library and held onto it for weeks after I'd finished reading, because I just didn't want to let it go: I found that there was something weirdly comforting about this strange, beguiling, nameless city. It's a place I want to escape back to and, in fact, I can't stop thinking about it. I can't think of a better reason for a ten-out-of-ten review than that.