One of the things that drives people nuts about Charles Dickens is the sheer number of coincidences in his novels. Inheritances come out of nowhere. Relatives meet by chance in unlikely places. Etc. etc. But because he’s Dickens, ol’ Charles can get away with a lot. I thought of this a lot in Jonathan Barnes’ Cannonbridge. There are a lot of stunning (as in, they will stun you as you read this book) coincidences in Cannonbridge. Barnes is no Dickens, however. But by the end of the book, Barnes reveals a ballsy ending to explain just how a formerly unknown Victorian author managed to meet Percy and Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, a young Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle over the course of a century—all without aging.
Toby Judd is a sad sack professor at a small university in England who is constantly overshadowed by his rival, Dr. J.J. Salazar. Both men study the life and work of Matthew Cannonbridge. This mysterious author seems to appear and disappear from the historical record after barging in on the leading literary lights of the day. Cannonbridge’s novels and poems are much loved and he is considered the greatest writer of his age. The fact that he only sporadically appears in the historical record doesn’t seem to have caused the same problems that poor Shakespeare has had.
After Judd’s wife leaves him for Salazar—just to twist the knife just a little bit more—Judd becomes disillusioned with Cannonbridge. When he looks more closely, the author’s novels just aren’t that good. Eventually Judd gives a lecture, in which he class that the great author is a hoax. This is the beginning of Judd’s surreal adventure. Barnes switches back and forth between Judd’s digging more deeply into the Cannonbridge conspiracy and episodes from Cannonbridge’s increasingly villainous life.
For a while, I thought Cannonbridge was some kind of time travelling English major. (That’s why I chose the book from NetGalley. I would read the hell out of that book.) But the truth, as Judd discovers, is much weirder than that. To say any more than that would ruin this strange—and highly entertaining—book. I will say that not everyone is going to buy the ending. I daresay that some readers will want to toss their copies across the room in outrage. I didn’t go quite that far. (Because I read this on the plane to Chicago.) There was some heavy eye-rolling, though.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 10 February 2015.