Oli Johns

CharcoalCharcoal by Oli Johns

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no doubt about it, this novel will divide opinion. Personally, I loved it. There were shades of Milan Kundera, Jeff Noon and David Lynch. The first half deals with the narrator’s struggle against depression as he moves mechanically through his life as a teacher in Hong Kong. A newspaper article about the suicide of a Korean model is the trigger for the second half of the text which is more of a surreal fantasy about the narrator trying to save himself by saving the model in question before she committed the act. Think of Murakami’s ‘Hard Boiled Wonderland…’ but set in the contemporary world rather than in that strange, dreamlike citadel of unicorn skulls.

The style used by Oli Johns has to be mentioned because it helps give the novel its uniqueness. Like Jeff Noon, he has turned his back on conventional paragraphs. But unlike Noon (where this can sometimes feel like a gimmick and detracts from the work) his use of short, declarative sentences that stand alone really puts across a strong sense of the narrator’s stream of consciousness. And it is surprisingly easy to read, giving the novel some serious pace also. Not having a lot of knowledge about philosophy (about which the narrator is also obsessed), I do know there was one philosophical work that was written in the same way, but for the life of me can’t remember which one. But to translate that idea into a work of fiction is, to me, a stroke of genius on the author’s part.

Overall, I thought this was a great book and staggeringly original. It did remind me in some ways of the Murakami work mentioned above, but unlike that one Johns doesn’t seem to feel the need to resolve the fantasy element in the narrative. No exposition about the narrator sinking into his unconscious here. In fact, at one point he is at pains to point out that this ISN’T a dream, it’s all too real. I liked that about it, it felt like an evolution of magic realism, pushing literature towards the places that cinema has already been for several years. Johns isn’t likely to be on the latest list of twelve up and coming authors, but on the evidence of this, I’d say he deserves to be. It’s edgy and it’s a bit out there, but I’m willing to bet it’s more innovative and unique than a lot of other things being talked about right now.

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