Fiction Reviews

Somebody’s Voice

(2021) Ramsey Campbell, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$32.95 / US$24.95, hrdbk, 243pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58608-6


Alex Grand is a successful crime novelist until his latest book is condemned for appropriating the experience of victims of abuse. In a bid to rescue his reputation he ghost-writes a memoir of abuse on behalf of a survivor, Carl Batchelor. Carl’s account proves to be less than entirely reliable; someone is alive who shouldn’t be. As Alex investigates the background of Carl’s accusations his grasp of the truth of the book, and of his own involvement, begin to crumble. When he has to testify in a court case brought about by Carl’s memoir, this may be one step too far for his insecure mind… This is the latest novel from the author of The Wise Friend.

Something different from Ramsey Campbell, or is it? Those familiar with his work will say it is the same vein as his novel The Count of Eleven, and it is certainly different from his supernatural/cosmic horror novels of recent years, but how would you label this one? A thriller? Campbell has always been a master of narrative drive, but he outdoes himself here, delivering a real page-turner. Or is it psychological horror? Or a “comedy of paranoia” as Campbell himself has called it, and the author does like his dark comedy after all, as evidenced by novels like The Grin of the Dark.

In Somebody’s Voice Alex Grand, the author of a series of successful crime novels featuring his detective, Palgrave Patten, gets criticised for writing about child abuse and gender transition in a superficial way in his latest novel, Nobody Sees, by suggesting that the child abuse led to the person transitioning. Things go from bad to worse when a book signing event gets hijacked by an abuse survivor and social media comments start racking up against him. The new book doesn’t sell as well and the previous books in the series aren’t selling either. so following a suggestion by his publisher he offers to write the memoir of Carl, who has suffered abuse and has gender-transitioned from being Carla. Thus, a collaboration begins leading to the publication of When I Was Carla. Job done, but Alex has opened a major can of worms by being Carl’s ghost writer and as a court case looms, Alex begins to struggle to remember what was fact, what was fiction, and what he has embellished, and ultimately what is true and what are lies as his own mind starts to buckle under the strain.

Just like Carl, the reader is wrong-footed several times which only adds to the tension, assisted by the different narrative viewpoints of Carla and Alex, and Carl, but also Alexander, Carly and Mr. Grand, some of which are told in the first person and some in the third person. Campbell has always been a master of tense relationships, of letting us listen into conversations we don’t want to hear, of upping the stress and anxiety levels of his major character, and all of those are here; but he has also written a very timely novel incorporating many of the issues of the day around identify, popularity, trial by social media, as well as familiar literary tropes such as unreliable narrators and unreliable memories to give us something refreshingly different, and one of his finest novels, in a career full of fine novels.


Ian Hunter


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