My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Relative to the wider population of fantasy books available, literary fantasy is in short supply. Partly this is down to readership; most readers prefer a touch of literary at most, but many more don’t seek that sort of discussion within their novels (which is, of course, completely fine). Partly it is somewhat hard to break into as a subgenre, being dominated by the existing giants of that particular fishbowl. And partly, anything literary is bound to be subjective and fickle in its reception, meaning an ambitious novel can miss its own mark with the slightest of missteps. All of these contribute to a ‘type’ of book which doesn’t sell easily to either readers or agents, and which is–imo–under represented in the fiction market.
It was therefore with a mix of trepidation and intrigue that I went and bought an unknown Lit-FA book from a small indie press (Unsung Stories–all their books are firmly in the literary end of speculative fiction).
The short version–I enjoyed it, and would recommend it, with some subjective preferences influencing my final rating (4 stars).
The longer version contains spoilers; read at your own risk .
‘Metronome’ follows the story of William Manderlay, an ex-sailor and former professional musician living out his last days in a retirement home. (Straight away the narrative gets a boost from me–older characters are very underrepresented in fantasy, and it’s refreshing to see one lead the story.
William begins to experience nightmares, either interspersed with memories or with the dreams themselves set within locations from his youth. His life unfolds in bits and pieces alongside the wider plot (or deeper plot, if you wish to be pedantic), drawing him further from his mundane life and into a plot involving his own musical compositions. The name of the novel is drawn from a ship which he sails on for much of the ensuing quest (but of course, has musical and psychological connotations too).
The writing is beautiful, musing, thoughtful; Manderlay’s observations show intelligence and awareness, in both character and (no doubt) the writer. The thread of Manderlay’s life is (I feel) the strongest element in the book; his self analysis is eloquent, and quietly tragic. There is nothing to fault in that respect.
Metronome was very nearly a five star for me (I try not to give those out very often). The things that held me back were all relatively small, but still significant in their own way. Firstly, the surreality. It’s an expected–even required–element of any dream fiction, but at times the sheer disconnectedness diffused the focus of the novel. Secondly, there is a suggestion early on that some aspects of the narrative could be read as a descent into death, or dementia. But though the imagery is heavily suggestive, Manderlay’s end is not explored or examined with the same gentle forensics which he applies to his own life, and I’m uncertain what the metaphysical consequences of Manderlay’s final choice will be, if indeed any. Perhaps that is deliberate (probably so, in fact) but I’m not sure it works for me.
Still, so much of the novel is enjoyable and intriguing, and it’s well worth the time to peruse.