Friday 18 February 2011

Sylvow by Douglas Thompson

Having been intrigued by Ultrameta, a previous novel by this author (reviewed on this blog on 2 October 2009) I was looking forward to seeing how his new work, Sylvow, compared.

There are some parallels between the two. Both are written in the form of discrete chapters - seventeen in this case - some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications. Two of them, Veronika and Vivienne's Garden, I had previously read in two anthologies from the British Fantasy Society; New Horizons (see my 6 November 2009 blog post) and Dark Horizons (22 January 2010). Both novels also feature a series of letters to a loved one written by one of the characters who has disappeared from normal existence, although in Sylvow the expanation for the disappearance is rather more mundane; the writer has chosen to live a wild existence in a forest.

The theme of Sylvow is the revolt of nature against the activities of mankind. Sylvow is an imaginary northern European city/state in the present day, formerly of great power but now in decline. The novel follows the lives of half a dozen of the inhabitants over several years: two women friends, Vivienne and Claudia, and their husbands; Claudio's Franco is a psychotherapist who unwillingly becomes involved with Veronika, a ferocious young Goth, while Vivienne's Leo (who is also Claudia's brother) had gone off to live in the forest surrounding the city several years before the story begins. His letters to Claudia have been the only contact from him since. The final main character is Anton, who after treatment by Franco had chosen to become a forester and who befriends the two women.

Strange things begin to happen in Sylvow. Giant insects emerge from the surrounding forest, plants begin to grow with great speed throughout the city, disrupting the services and blocking the roads, and soldiers are seen conducting peculiar experiments in the forest. The city gradually suffers organisational and social collapse, until it is finally threatened by flooding.

This description may sound like a fashionable environmentalist catastrophe tale, but it is very different from a conventional story. Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific. There is a haunting quality to his prose, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely detached from reality as there are some penetrating observations about life and relationships scattered through it; for instance, Franco's ruthless analysis of his own infidelity and the state of mind which led inexorably to disaster in his personal life.

This book won't appeal to everyone. In fact, if I had only read this description it wouldn't have appealed to me, since it isn't the kind of book I normally read. However, the quality of the writing and the strangeness of the story compelled me to read it all the way through.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

It sounds like a cross between the plot for the movie "The Happening" and some old sixties black and white sci-fi movies with huge ants and where everything that ever got mutated was due to radiation (ppl were scared of nuclear power in those days).

Anthony G Williams said...

I don't think I've ever seen that movie, Michael, but the flavour of the book is very different from the old SF monster movies: much more adult and sophisticated, much more dreamlike and surreal.

Alexander Stark said...

The Happening is a pretty good movie actually, although it really divides opinion, i.e. those who cannot take poetic metaphor with their science baulk at it. Sylvow was written before it though, by quite a way. Worth watching for Zoe Deschanel's wonderful big eyes alone, and I think I'd still say that even if I was gay, frankly...

Bill Garthright said...

I've got to say that it doesn't sound appealing, Tony. But then I read your last paragraph. Sometimes, it's just hard to tell from a description. Books that don't sound good can be very good indeed. So I'll keep this one in mind.