Review published on April 13, 2018.
This is undoubtedly a literary novel about a family and relationships, but also it’s about a love of books and it’s a spy story. It’s not surprising that the author set up a bookshop, you can almost imagine him spending time rooting through the stock and absorbing stories for this novel. The reason it’s here is because this complex tale features a spy story set during the Cold War. That isn’t entirely apparent from the opening pages but there is a mention of the death of a Russian Colonel at a trade fair in Moscow in 1959 (this later becomes important to the plot). The reasons for the death and the consequences slowly unfold over the course to the story. To fully appreciate Chameleon you will need to enjoy the family tale and the literary game playing. But I can’t think of a good reason why lovers of intelligent spy thrillers should not be interested in these other aspects of the story too.
Chameleon is a promising debut from Fisher, as well as running a bookshop he is also small press publisher. He has taken an interesting concept, John the living book (that’s my epithet, referred to from now on as John because he is a character in the novel). John can become any book to appeal to the owner, he accompanies the characters in the novel and immerses himself in their stories. John thus provides an interesting third-party narrative that opens up some things the characters can’t see for themselves or wish to hide.
Take, for example, the visit of Jessica to her grandfather. She sees a photograph of her grandparents, a memory encapsulated, she asks Roger how they met. Even on his deathbed, following a stroke, Roger has a secret that he cannot reveal. He tells her a story, it’s convincing to Jessica, but John knows better. So we hear from John, narrating the novel, his tale is very different, the truth as he has seen it. Roger is a former spy, a graduate of Fort Monckton where he became an agent for SIS. Initially he thinks he will be posted in London but he is sent to Moscow. The spy story begins, it involves a honey trap, betrayal and ultimately the death of a Russian Colonel at a trade fair showcasing American goods at the exhibition centre in Sokol’niki Park in 1959. It’s the height of the Cold War and the Colonel has been murdered. Gradually we begin to understand what that means for Roger, the people around him and his family.
John Roberts can be any book to appeal to the people he stays with and to witness their lives. The story is not linear and there are some interesting passages in the medieval world and the world of Wellington’s army. Crucially, John is not an omniscient narrator. His musings are based on what he sees, assuming he is telling the truth, some of his reminiscences may be hearsay. When Roger goes to Moscow John has an impression of what he will find from reading the British press and is surprised to find it is not as he thought it would be. The people are not universally dour, the life not an entirely snow bound misery. It’s an interesting way of observing history but we find that all may not be as it seems in the tale John tells. We have layers like all good spy stories.
John is a murderer, he killed his wife in a jealous rage and was hanged for the crime. He has himself flayed to provide the vellum for the book cover (I know this generally refers to calf skin but you see what I mean). This is known as anthropodermic biblioplegy, it has a name because macabrely enough it a real thing. There are tested examples of such books existing in some of the world’s libraries, though thankfully it is only a handful. John is now 800 years old and Chameleon is also his story, his confession.
On a basic level, the presence’s of John is simply another way of telling a story, putting the narrator into the way to the other characters. But the length of his life, his is infinite, means that he can witness so much more; new people, long term consequences. You may enjoy the spy story but only if you also want to hear John’s story and you are intrigued by the love poem to literature and reading. Playing with works from the past, enfolding them into the narrative or explicitly referencing them. Absorbing phrases or directly quoting from Shakespeare and Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Virginia Woolf et al. This is one obvious passage:
“I’ve had the best of times; I’ve had the worst of times. Have I been the hero of my own life or has that station been held by somebody else? To begin my life with the beginning of my life I record that I was born…”
Chameleon is very ambitious, a love story, a journey across time and place in literature, a family saga and a spy story. I can’t say I was wholeheartedly convinced but it is a valiant effort. I will certainly keep an eye out for Fisher’s future novels off the back of this debut.
Paul Burke 4/3
Chameleon by Samuel Fisher
Salt 9781784631246 pbk Apr 2018