A bril­liant book nar­rated by a bril­liant book

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JOHN BOYNE

On the ac­knowl­edg­ments page at the end of

The Chameleon, Sa­muel Fisher refers to his de­but novel as a “strange lit­tle book”, an en­tirely ac­cu­rate de­scrip­tion. In re­cent years, fic­tion has pro­vided us with some un­ex­pected nar­ra­tive voices – Death in Markus Zusak’s

The Book Thief, a foe­tus in Ian McEwan’s

Nut­shell, var­i­ous items of mil­i­tary ar­tillery in Henry Parker’s Anatomy of a Sol­dier – but this one truly takes the bis­cuit.

For The Chameleon is nar­rated by the book it­self, which has been granted a con­scious­ness and lived for cen­turies, able to trans­form it­self into any book it chooses at ran­dom, thus re­main­ing with a par­tic­u­lar hu­man through­out his life, liv­ing in his satchel, pocket, or on a bed­side ta­ble. Hon­estly, by the time I was a cou­ple of chap­ters in and had fig­ured the rules of this par­tic­u­lar game, there was a part of me that was rolling my eyes and think­ing, I’m get­ting too old for this sort of thing.

And yet, some­how Book won me over for the same rea­son that any nar­ra­tor will: by be­ing witty, cere­bral and com­pletely in con­trol of its story. And while it would be easy to dis­miss The Chameleon as an ex­er­cise in odd­ness, it ul­ti­mately suc­ceeds by per­suad­ing the reader to ig­nore the im­pos­si­ble na­ture of the voice and fo­cus in­stead on what it has to say.

The novel opens with Book look­ing down on his long-term reader, Roger, as the old man pre­pares to depart this life for the next. Roger’s daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter are by his bed­side, and this brush with mor­tal­ity, com­bined with a sense of im­pend­ing grief, leads Book to re­call some of the more dra­matic mo­ments they have shared over the decades. (Book can­not die, as such, but it does worry about be­ing pulped or in­cin­er­ated and was once buried with a pre­vi­ous reader, only to be re­leased from his shal­low grave by a res­ur­rec­tion man, come to steal the body.)

For­tu­nately, Roger has led quite an in­ter­est­ing life, hav­ing joined the civil ser­vice at a young age and been re­cruited as a Bri­tish spy, based in Moscow at the height of the Cold War. Var­i­ous shenani­gans take place in an ice-cold Rus­sia and Roger has deal­ings with chess-play­ing, de­fec­tion-friendly colonels while Book – dressed var­i­ously as Agatha Christie’s The Body in the Li­brary, Vir­ginia Woolf’s Or­lando and Dos­to­evsky’s The Id­iot – re­mains an ob­server, in­trigued by the na­ture of global re­alpoli­tik while mak­ing sure that ev­ery time he changes his out­fit, so to speak, Roger is out of sight. There are a few close calls, of course – when he switches from Lucky Jim to Pointed Roofs, he al­most blows his cover – but these only add to the drama.

There’s even a brief touch of ro­mance when, be­liev­ing that he is the only one of his type in ex­is­tence, Book is as­ton­ished to be left on a ta­ble near a copy of Alexan­der Pope’s Es­say on

Man, which in­sists on chang­ing back and forth to Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost. In an at­tempt at flir­ta­tion he too switches from the King James Bi­ble to Le Dernier Homme. This, one must as­sume in Book­world, is the equiv­a­lent of sexy­time and, by the end of the pas­sage, the lust pour­ing from the ex­hausted pages would put Fifty Shades of Grey to shame, but it’s also a tes­ta­ment to the sin­gu­lar­ity and con­sis­tency of Fisher’s cen­tral con­ceit. Ul­ti­mately the reader’s en­joy­ment of The

Chameleon will de­pend on how much one is will­ing to set dis­be­lief aside and sim­ply go with Book’s flow, a task that did not prove dif­fi­cult for me. The whole thing is writ­ten with such cheer­ful ec­cen­tric­ity that it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be swept along and, if the fa­mil­ial re­la­tion­ships Roger messes up and tries to re­pair over the course of his life are not al­ways com­pletely riv­et­ing, then this is a small flaw more than made up for by the charm of the nar­ra­tor.

As well as be­ing a new nov­el­ist, Fisher is also a founder of Penin­sula Press, a small in­de­pen­dent pub­lisher whose list to date shows a predilec­tion for in­no­va­tive and ex­per­i­men­tal voices. It’s a par­tial­ity repli­cated in this won­der­ful, funny, au­da­cious de­but. Who knows what my copy of The Chameleon will turn into while my back is turned but I look for­ward to dis­cov­er­ing what­ever Sa­muel Fisher will throw him­self into next.

JohnBoyne’slat­est­nov­elis The Heart’s In­vis­i­ble

Furies(Dou­ble­day)

Sa­muel Fisher: has writ­ten a deeply sat­is­fy­ing ex­er­cise in odd­ness

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