Dr Nicholas Slopen is an average academic for whom books are the “centre of the world”. You can practically smell the brown cords and the musty scent of old books emanating from him.
Nicholas – Nicky – has carved a bit of a niche for himself as a Dr Samuel Johnson expert, with one well received book of the great man’s letters under his literary belt, he’s now in the process of producing another volume. Johnson’s words and his 18th century world have help create who Nicholas is. The books, the words, the thoughts he’s absorbed over the years are as vital as DNA and he’s about to learn just how vital in a hugely violent and degenerative way.
We’re first introduced to Nicholas Slopen by an ex-girlfriend, Susanna Laidlaw-Robinson, who opens the novel with a prelude of the story that follows. Nicholas enters her life years after they last met only for him to die in her house hours later. Confusingly for her, Nicholas Slopen actually died a year before and there are grisly post-mortem pictures to prove it. So who was this man with Nicky’s eyes who called her by his pet name for her,‘Suki’? Sure, he looked different and the tattoos were puzzling, but we all grow older and that was unmistakably Nicky’s personality imprinted on that face.
The answer lies down the back of the sofa where Susanna finds a USB left by the doubly-dead Nicholas. Its contents reveal how ex-Nicholas Scholey came to be in her Midland’s shop. His tale is Strange Bodies.
Nicholas journey to the Midland’s begins with a meeting with the perfectly drawn Hunter, a music biz mogul whose part hippy, part sociopath. He calls on Nicky’s expertise to verify the provenance of what are believed to be long-lost letters of Johnson’s. Excited by the thought of Johnson treasures, Nicholas’ agreement to investigate this slash of potential literary gold pulls him into a deadly experiment driven by Hunter’s vanity and ego.
Strange Bodies is a book about how words make up who we are, our bodies – our carcass as they are referred to later on in the novel – are little more than vessels to transport the real us. There’s undoubtedly a Frankenstein shadow hanging over Strange Bodies, but Theroux’s monster has a 21st century sophisticated and humanity that Mary Shelley’s gothic novel lacks. There are quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, and of course Johnson. London – the city Johnson loved, “if a man is bored of…etc” – is an unassuming, but powerful background as Theroux takes us from the fancy squares behind Piccadilly to shabby South London suburbs.
Strange Bodies is an absorbing tale that genre-wise is hard to define. It’s part literary thriller, part sci-fi, a novel that weaves literature and science, words and theories into a compelling narrative. It should read like a completely bonkers, far-fetched tale, like a Jasper Fforde book on steroids, but it’s firmly rooted in real life, littered with enough references to scientific theory and told with such confidence and elegance that you don’t question the strange events that unfold.
For a book about language and the dusty world of academia, Strange Bodies is very physical, quite brutal in places, like Shakespeare’s more vicious moments when the fine words slip away to make room for flinching realism, but it’s also very funny in places, and not in a literary-slap-on-the-thigh in-joke way.
If Strange Bodies sounds heavy going, it’s not, it’s an intelligent, gripping, multi-layered page-turner that is both a great yarn and a love letter to literature, an ode to words and their power and beauty.
by Suzanne Elliott