The Chameleon, Samuel Fisher, Salt Publishing, 2018, pp. 207, £9.99
The Chameleon is a novel narrated by the soul of a book, which can shape shift between any book that it pleases. Stretching across a time frame that goes from the Black Death of the 13th century to the aftermath of the Cold War in the late twentieth century, it is one of the most unusual love stories that you are likely to read.
But a love story nevertheless it is, and a tragic one at that. The book centres on the British Cold War spy Roger, stationed in the USSR far away from his long suffering wife Margery.
It is perhaps not surprising that its author, Samuel Fisher, is a bookseller, one of the proprietors of the excellent Burley Fisher Books in East London. The novel is heavy on literary allusions and references, particularly to Jorge Luis Borges and Virginia Woolf, whose novel Orlando serves as an obvious inspiration. But while the ability of the protagonist in Orlando to travel deathlessly through time is centred around gender, and serves as a (magisterial) exploration of that subject, Fisher’s act of locating the voice of his narrator within the binding of a book focuses The Chameleon on storytelling itself. The novel is a celebration of its form, the power of storytelling, and the book as physical object, not to mention the personal relationships that people have with books.
This can be seen in the way that the shape-shifting narrator (who at one point introduces himself as ‘John’), can believably know the secrets of all the characters whose story he tells, being ever-present in inside-pockets, and on tables in hotel rooms.
This narrative technique enables Fisher to seamlessly weave together a complex and secretive family history, with an inventiveness which evokes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. But while Marquez’s magical realist epic veers wildly between different strands of the fantastical, the real-life narrative in The Chameleon centres around a very believable Cold War drama that would appeal to fans of noir fiction and literary realism. In this way, Fisher is able to transfer between worlds in a way that never feels disengaging. Indeed, the author has the uncanny ability to paint a poignant pictures of an age which he did not experience:
The Blitz had left wounds in South London and everyone who had come through it together was knit together in the scarred tissue of the community.
And despite the innovative technique with which the story is told, it is Fisher’s handling of tone, dialogue and prose that allows the story to be the star of the show. The narrative of Roger and Margery’s relationship, and the affect of the wars of the 20th century on multiple generations of their family is compelling and genuinely pulls at the emotions, while the depiction of 1950s Moscow and London creates an atmospheric noir backdrop. The book’s playfulness and wit allow the novel time to breathe and to entertain. Its stylistic peculiarities augment and bring depth to the plot, rather than usurping its role as the main event.
As a co-director of the excellent Peninsula Press and having previously been a judge on perhaps the most forward thinking of all UK literary awards, The Republic of Consciousness Prize, it is perhaps no surprise that Fisher’s debut displays a stylistic inventiveness and historical scope that belies his age. The Chameleon is an ambitious but accomplished debut, and we certainly hope that Samuel has enough time in between selling and producing books to write more of them.
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Words by Robert Greer.