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Fossil Circus

by John Kaiine

(Egerton House Press, paperback, £12.99, 316 pages, June 2004, ISBN 09546275-6-3.)

Review by Sarah Singleton

Fossil Circus, billed a metaphysical thriller, is a terrifying, blackly comic first novel from Fossil Circus by John Kaiineartist, photographer and writer John Kaiine. Not only has he written the novel, the multi-talented Kaiine has provided the six illustrations and the glorious cover design--a rust and sepia coloured layering of skulls, crucifixion, gothic and religious imagery, and an entirely apposite welcome to the novel's grotesque world of madness and multiple murder.

Fossil Circus, published by Egerton House Press (pbk, 316pp, £12.99 ISBN 09546275-6-3) is set in London 1992. Four ex psychiatric patients are bequeathed a Victorian lunatic asylum by their psychoanalyst and improbably decide to move in. Jackson, the legless hard man joins Ernie, who has a mental age of six, the flatulent and obsessive Norman Fish and necrophiliac Roane, and the four men take up residence together. The building, Tookesbury Hall, was intended to be a church until its atheist mason committed suicide and it became an asylum instead. On the other side of town, another lunatic is sheltering in an abandoned church -- the gloriously named Jerusalem Lamb lurks in the Church of Rust and pins a dead magpie to a statue of Christ, letting his hideous god pick out random victims for horrible murder.

The novel is a mire of fetishism, ugliness and violence, shot through with the most wicked wit, teasing word play and fantastical puns. The writing has a curious staccato style, statements spinning out in a manner suggesting poetry rather than prose, which requires concentration on the part of the reader, but Kaiine's descriptions of the entirely unholy possess an unexpected beauty. This combination of horror and lyricism brings to mind Nick Cave's novel And the Ass saw the Angel but the tone of the novel has echoes of Irvine Welsh -- a curiously hybrid Irvine Welsh with aspects of Virginia Woolf.

The (almost) contemporary setting is interlaced with a kind of magic surrealism, evidenced in the parrot Maudsley, who can read and think like a human, and the nature of the asylum itself, with its host of mysterious locked upstairs rooms -- each like a symbolist painting, or a dream, which Roane sets out to decode.

Towards the end of the novel the writer seems to feel odd flashes of compassion for the poor players suffering in his piece of work -- and perhaps if this aspect had been embedded throughout the tale it would have added power to the narrative. But the novel is tightly plotted and despite the challenging style, it is an engrossing read.

With its morbidly gothic style, Grand Guignol flashes of humour and violence, Fossil Circus is certainly strong meat and will not suit every palate but it is a remarkable, haunting and atmospheric novel.

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