Sylvow by Douglas Thompson

Sylvow by Douglas Thompson

Having been intrigued by Ultrameta, a previous novel by this author (reviewed on this blog on 2 October 2009) I was looking forward to seeing how his new work, Sylvow, compared.

There are some parallels between the two. Both are written in the form of discrete chapters - seventeen in this case - some of which have appeared as short stories in various publications. Two of them, Veronika and Vivienne's Garden, I had previously read in two anthologies from the British Fantasy Society; New Horizons (see my 6 November 2009 blog post) and Dark Horizons (22 January 2010). Both novels also feature a series of letters to a loved one written by one of the characters who has disappeared from normal existence, although in Sylvow the expanation for the disappearance is rather more mundane; the writer has chosen to live a wild existence in a forest.

The theme of Sylvow is the revolt of nature against the activities of mankind. Sylvow is an imaginary northern European city/state in the present day, formerly of great power but now in decline. The novel follows the lives of half a dozen of the inhabitants over several years: two women friends, Vivienne and Claudia, and their husbands; Claudio's Franco is a psychotherapist who unwillingly becomes involved with Veronika, a ferocious young Goth, while Vivienne's Leo (who is also Claudia's brother) had gone off to live in the forest surrounding the city several years before the story begins. His letters to Claudia have been the only contact from him since. The final main character is Anton, who after treatment by Franco had chosen to become a forester and who befriends the two women.

Strange things begin to happen in Sylvow. Giant insects emerge from the surrounding forest, plants begin to grow with great speed throughout the city, disrupting the services and blocking the roads, and soldiers are seen conducting peculiar experiments in the forest. The city gradually suffers organisational and social collapse, until it is finally threatened by flooding.

This description may sound like a fashionable environmentalist catastrophe tale, but it is very different from a conventional story. Like all of Thompson's writing, this has a surreal, dreamlike quality, like a fairytale of the original Grimm sort, dark and mysterious and sometimes horrific. There is a haunting quality to his prose, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely detached from reality as there are some penetrating observations about life and relationships scattered through it; for instance, Franco's ruthless analysis of his own infidelity and the state of mind which led inexorably to disaster in his personal life.

This book won't appeal to everyone. In fact, if I had only read this description it wouldn't have appealed to me, since it isn't the kind of book I normally read. However, the quality of the writing and the strangeness of the story compelled me to read it all the way through.

(This entry is cross-posted from my science-fiction & fantasy blog.)