Gnomon by Nick Harkaway

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I love books.  There is something wonderful about a dusty collection of paper, tied up with string that contains infinite adventures and understandings.  I read a lot of books, review a few and pester only two authors consistently and relentlessly upon the social networks.  Chris Beckett is one (a review of his America City here) and the other is the focus of this review, Nick Harkaway.  With perfect timing (after successful nagging of both author and publicist), Harkaway’s latest arrived just in time for my summer holiday with a note saying I wasn’t allowed to talk about it, until now.

Which, if I’m honest, has worked out rather well because Gnomon is a dense, spiralling tale that only grows in your reminisce.  I will be honest, Harkaway’s novels delight and annoy me (still haven’t got over the twist in his first novel, The Gone Away World).  Harkaway does the rarest of things though, he respects his reader and treats them as smart enough to stay with him.  In his previous novels, he has layered tales and timelines upon each other, added mysterious gasses and timely use of custard to draw you in, spin you about and dazzle you with the way he draws you to the conclusion.  In Gnomon, I was convinced he wasn’t going to pull it off, but he does with a mastery that after the best part of 700 pages, I was sad to leave the tales he had woven.

Gnomon opens with a death.  In a Britain where total surveillance and direct democracy have replaced the system we endure today.  The System and the Witness jointly watch over us.  The Witness’ investigators deal with whatever it sees.  Mielikki Neith is assigned to investigate the death of Diana Hunter, an author who had managed to live off the grid in a rejection of the new order.  Her interrogation, within a machine that delves into your mind, recording everything, “fixing” the rest, has gone terribly wrong and Hunter is the first to die in it’s chair.  Neith has to find out why and this means going into Hunter’s mind.  But Hunter came prepared and Neith is not alone in wanting access to Hunter’s secrets.  As Neith enters Hunter’s mind, she doesn’t meet Hunter, but four others, carefully constructed and with their own tales to tell, spread across thousands of years.  There is Constantine, asshole Greek banker who survives an encounter with a shark and channels that into billions.  There is Athenais, an alchemist and St Augustine’s ex-wife of sorts, who is brought in to figure out an unholy murder and sees it as opportunity to bring back her dead son.  Berihun Bekele is an Ethiopian artist, feted in the high days of Haile Selassie’s reign and tortured in aftermath of the fall.  London based years later, his granddaughter brings him in to help design a game, Witnessed.  And then there is Gnomon.  A collection of our darkest intelligence from the far future who to gain his ultimate prize, must carry out four killings to be released into eternity.  Neith has to journey with each to get to the centre of the mystery and contend with Regno Lonnrot, who dogs her waking moments.

Each of Harkaway’s characters are unique, their voices singular enough to give you the feeling that you could be reading different novels.  But motifs begin to coalesce in each of Neith’s visits to the layers of Hunter’s mind and the path starts to form.  Harkaway uses different fonts to make each one stand out, but they are drawn so well that soon I felt this wasn’t really needed.  The characters Hunter had created, and Hunter herself, are told in the first person, as you would expect someone’s inner monologue to be.  Neith viewpoint is in the third, with us watching her as she watches Hunter and her creations.  It is a simple and effective device which Harkaway uses brilliantly.  My mind worked hard to plot the new information as it came in into the bigger picture.  Poolside in Barcelona, my daughter laughed at me because she said it looked like I was reading the book backwards, as I jumped back and forth, rereading passages to check new information that had come to light.  That these threads work out, that they complement each other throughout is testament to Harkaway’s craft.

The wit and effortless turn of phrase that has delighted me in his previous three novels is brought out in multiple voices, each so rewarding within themselves.  I believe I could have been happy with a novel based on just one of his creations (Athenais if I had to pick just one), so engaging are they.  And yet, the plot needs to be serviced.  By the midpoint of the tale, each thread is dangled seemingly just out of reach.  But Harkaway starts weaving them back in together to the point you wonder if he will stick the landing.  With complex and layered tales like this, towards the end of some, the subplots get jettisoned for expedience.  In Gnomon, there is very little fat on the bone to be trimmed.  Each plot point serves the whole and each discovery moves Neith’s investigation forward with things ramping up to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Nick Harkaway set himself a remarkably high bar with Gnomon.  He looks at our world and the issues we face from oblique angles, in turn making us look at our own path from eyes we may not have considered or have even wanted too.  What could easily have become a routine “high concept thriller” is subtle, honest and true to it’s characters, be they real or imagined.  You find your perception of each of them change dramatically over each of their arcs as they help Neith towards her goal.  Gnomon is masterful.

Winter is falling upon us.  The nights are drawn in.  Please, treat yourself, pick up a copy of Gnomon, cuddle into your favourite chair, pour yourself something nice and turn to the first page.  The journey will be worth it.

Gnomon by Nick Harkaway is published by William Heinemann and is out now.  This review copy was kindly provided by the publisher (after the aforementioned nagging).