Fiction Reviews


(2017) Nick Harkaway, William Heinemann, £14.99, hrdbk, 688pp, ISBN 978-1-785-151527-9


Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a detective story set in a post-Brexit England, where society is benignly controlled by a surveillance system called The Witness and policy is decided by continual jury-style referendums. When one of the systems rare opponents dies under a routine police memory scan, inspector Mielikki Neith is assigned to find out why. So, Harkaway’s book is a detective story. Only it is not. Because once Neith has accessed the memory tape, she finds herself experiencing a whole range of fake memories that take her through different times and places.

Gnomon is one of the hardest books I’ve ever had to review, and that’s probably a good thing because Harkaway is trying to deal with an important topics: the surveillance society; and how such a well ordered society can still be a dystopia. It is a big book, dealing with big issues, written by a very good writer. But, is it a good book? Or is it really just an overwrought, pretentious mess, as some readers have claimed?

Well, it’s certainly not that: Harkaway is too good an author. But it is very low on readability. Just as you become comfortable dealing with one reality, it changes into something entirely different. ‘Ah ha!,’ say fans of Harkaway, ‘that’s just to unsettle the reader and force them to confront the same scenario in different ways. In the end, they all tie up in a beautifully satisfying conclusion.’ And that may be true. But it feels like reading four books at the same time, and then having them snatched away from you. It’s kind of like Michael Moorcock at his least narrative (Jerry Cornelius anyone?) Or Philip K Dick, if he wrote books this long, which thank God, he never did. So even if the topics it deals with are complex and deserve thought, it is difficult to maintain a narrative thread. Some readers like that. Other don’t, which I guess is the reason that this book divides people.

Let’s put it this way: one critic has described Gnomon as ‘1984 for the modern day,’ and I can see why they would say that. A lot of the book does probe into the effects of a fully linked up society, where your Tinder page can be accessed automatically by people across the road, and where your deepest thoughts can be used to judge you. But Orwell was a journalist and 1984 is a tightly written book. Try to take out a paragraph without wrecking it, go on, I dare you. It has no digressions. It has no info dumps. And it certainly has no shark.

So, what’s my overall conclusion? Certainly, this is a book with which to spend some time. It may well become the new conversation opener at conventions (“So, what did you think of Gnomon? Really? Me too.”) but it does carry more than a whiff of the Emperor’s new clothes about it.

Sebastian Phillips

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