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Salamander by Thomas Wharton

01/11/2011. Contributed by Ewan Angus

Buy Salamander in the USA - or Buy Salamander in the UK

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pub: McClelland and Stewart. 372 page hardback. Price: $16.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-55199-444-4.

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‘Salamander’ by Thomas Wharton is beautiful. It is a work of art and is the finest homage to the idea of the book that I have ever come across. It blends fact with fiction in such a mesmerising way that you never feel like it’s a history lesson. It is a story within a story within a bigger story, which is our reality, that encompasses everything from the history of the printing press to castles whose walls continuously move, making it in effect, a thousand different castles depending on the time.

Like our history, the novel weaves a tale through a world in which the old is dying and technology is forcing its way to the fore. It is a world in which Alexandria is a failing city, in which the Huguenots are becoming integrated with British society, in which the British and the French’s expeditions in the Americas are a thunderous backdrop. Yet it is about none of these things implicitly, these are merely background characters. The novel itself is about the book. Not a particular book, but the acts, work and emotion that is bound together between the bindings.

It is also, in the beginning, a book about Nicolas Flood, a printer whose eccentric and wonderful works catch the eye of the even more eccentric Count Ostrov. His is suffering from the loss of wife and child and has turned his ancient castle into a puzzle. A giant twisting entity that slips in and out of Wharton’s abilities to describe. However, in no way is this a criticism of the author’s of skill, exactly the opposite. His inability to describe this mischievous building helps to serve the idea of its impossible, ever changing geography.

‘Salamander’ is a marvellous book for twisting and writhing its way around what the reader expects. Part manifesto on the theories of a book- part glorious fantasy, it constantly changes its own geography and focus. In one chapter, the characters are dealing with a moving labyrinth, the next they are pretending to be Chinese robots to steal the perfect paper, which smells of black tea. Then there are the pirates who chase them for the stowaway that they discover aboard the boat they travel around the world in. Oh and there is the boat, which is itself a monstrous floating maze, which becomes a floating print works, whilst books are tattooed onto amnesiac assistants. On top of that, there is a timeless alter reality accessible only through a tray of type.

Now whilst this does come across as random, as unrelated parts of a whole that doesn’t quite fit it is the absolute brilliance of the novel that Wharton ties the whole thing together into a story of almost unparalleled beauty. I am hard pressed to find a novel that juggles so many huge ideas in a way like Wharton does. I doff my cap to him as I was mesmerised from the first sentence. Through the twisting by-ways of a plot so complicated and wonderful, Wharton has made possible the perfect novel. There are a million types of perfect but this novel stands out in a way that very few other novels do. It has the gravitas and ideas like Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ has, with the witty alternate history of Tim Powers, mixed with the importance of Dickens or Austen.

This novel is important and fantastic and is the book that highlights the brilliance of the book as an entity. Over the past few years, the literary mainstream has lauded novels that revolve around books such as ‘The Shadow Of The Wind’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak but this novel, this powerful tour de force, is the real deal. The previous two may have been bestsellers but this book is better than both by far. This book is as near to perfect as a book can be. It ironically becomes exactly what the characters are searching for.

Ewan Angus

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