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The Unblemished

by Conrad Williams

(Earthling Publications, $45, 368 pages, hardcover -- reviewed from proof copy.)

Review by Gary Couzens

cover scanThe Unblemished is a London novel. The city is a character in it, the same way as it might be in a novel or story by Christopher Fowler, or M. John Harrison or Nicholas Royle, to name but a few. Many of the places are real (such as the Princess Louise pub on High Holborn, where a key scene occurs) which makes the horrors depicted all the more effective. Admittedly this review is written by someone familiar with many of the locations, but even if it wasn't, this novel is rooted in a sense of place that would be still be evident. It's certainly a strong point of The Unblemished, and makes up for some of the weaker points.

The novel follows a familiar convergent pattern, setting up several plot threads that eventually intertwine, not always as well as they should. Bo is handed a map by a stranger in a pub and soon life becomes very strange and disturbing indeed. Sarah Hickman is on the run with her daughter Claire, who is ill and displaying some strange symptoms. (This is in part derived from Williams's short story "Outfangthief" which he originally published under the name Gala Blau.) Pursuing them is Malcolm Manser, a psycho with a penchant for having sex with newly-created amputee women. He is in league with a cannibalistic serial killer hiding away in the woods, who believes that he is descended from an ancient dynasty due to return one day.

The Unblemished is an uneven novel. At times it's very vivid, uncomfortably so. Williams is certainly a writer who shows no fear of his subject matter, whatever extremities it may take him and the reader to. This is definitely not a novel for the squeamish or easily offended. Given the nature of some of the characters, I found the novel rather cold and alienating: the most sympathetic character is Sarah, but even she is kept somewhat at arm's length. Given that this is a horror novel -- in the words of Williams's afterword, "a really chunky, bloody horror novel with lots of monsters..." -- it may seem odd to complain that it is dark. Dark I can take, but I found that this novel didn't reward me for the amount that it harrowed me.

However, at other times the novel seems muddled. Sometimes the writing style is unnecessarily confusing: in some scenes paragraphs may go by without identification of which character or characters we're with, and some plot threads and characters tail off irresolutely. I also found the novel somewhat overlong, especially in the first half.

I do admit that I haven't always cared for Conrad Williams's work in the past, though I was generally positive about his previous novella for Earthling, Game, reviewed elsewhere on this site. The Unblemished left me with considerably mixed feelings: when it works it creates an impression that you may not want in your head but certainly stays there for a while. But at other times it falls short of success.

Earthling's edition has an introduction by Jeff VanderMeer and an afterword by Williams. It is limited to 500 signed and numbered hardcovers. An edition of fifteen lettered, slipcased hardcovers signed by Williams, VanderMeer and cover artist Chris Nurse (which retailed at $250) is now sold out.

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