Shortly after its 2012 publication in England, Communion Town was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. With good reason, it turns out, because in this debut work, Sam Thompson writes prose that has the vivid elusiveness of a haunting dream and adroitly mixes genres in a manner that brings to mind a young David Mitchell.
Despite its subtitle (the ubiquitous “A Novel”), Communion Town is more of a set of linked stories. Each of the book’s 10 chapters is told from a different point of view, in a different voice referencing a different genre, from a Raymond Chandler-like hardboiled detective in “Gallathea” who is sent on a detecting mission that folds weirdly back into itself, to the relatively straightforward third-person narrative of “The City Room,” in which a young boy living with his grandmother ventures away from the toy city he has constructed at home and out into the mysterious, threatening city beyond his door.
“It’s worth taking every chance to become more integrated with the community,” the creepy unnamed narrator of the title story tells Ulya, a young recent immigrant to the city he is trying to persuade to abandon her boyfriend. But this city, Communion Town, offers no community. It is a dark place whose slums and abandoned developments are vividly described. Many of its inhabitants are newly arrived, disoriented and alone. Their loves and hopes, like those of the young musician in “The Song of Serelight,” the longest and best story here, are lifted only to be cruelly even bizarrely dashed. Inhabitants who have lived in the city long enough have learned not go out after dark for fear of meeting the Flâneur, a mysterious nightwalker with a boutonniere who will whisper a truth in their ear that will make them forever lost to the world they know.
Thompson, who is on the English faculty at St. Anne’s College at Oxford University, plays here with genre and expectations. Occasionally his verbal fluency seems too clever and his intent too personal and hidden. But overall Communion Town casts a spell and draws a reader forward. The quiet horror of our journey through Thompson’s imagined city sends us searching for the moral comforts of empathy and justice, lamplights ahead in the fog.