Reviewed by Declan Tan
Not every book looks and feels like an artefact when you pick it up. Oftentimes it is just words printed across cheap paper, the literal form of it separated from its content, cased in a merely functional cover with some gluey binding. But with Five Wounds, an “illuminated novel”, the very object itself is part of its mythology and there is a sense of something big, something heavy within it, if you have the time.
It is not very often that a review of a book demands also a review of its physical presence. Crossing genre and classifications, both narratively and visually, and switching tone between allegory and playfulness, the book is clearly a labour of love for its writer, Jonathan Walker, and its illustrator, Dan Hallett, in what is the pair’s second collaboration. It is undeniably a sublime thing to behold. The first time you pick it up and turn it over in your hands is, as Walker and Hallett have intended, like reading the first lines of its mystic story. An impressive hardback almost biblical in feel, its appearance matches, too, its biblical layout of chapters and verses.
The story follows the escapades of five fairytale characters inhabiting a composite Venice made of historical and modern snatches of the city, strikingly illustrated by Hallett based on, among other things, Goya’s etchings. The designs are impressive and densely detailed throughout, with a glossy series of 18 plates in the centre pages occasionally referred to in the text. We are first introduced to Cur, a beast-like man and leader of a pack of dogs, being photographed by Magpie, a thief and daguerrotypist. An interweaving, lattice of a story emerges which involves a devious ‘saviour’, Crow; the hero origins of Cuckoo, a gambling man with a face of wax; as well as a de-winged angel, stolen identities, kidnapping, murder, and some questionable cuisine.
Five Wounds makes the admirable move of not taking itself too seriously, which certainly works in its favour. There is a vein of quaint humour that runs throughout; revisions and asides are scribbled upon the page as if the work was still incomplete; arrows point at things and comment upon them matter-of-factly (“Not a whale”); surreal events transpire through droll, imaginative wording; and it is all set off by a dedication that reads: “To whom it may concern”.
But intermittently there seems inhibited intrigue to a story built as if by Calvino dealing tarot cards at random, that stakes everything on its desire to be deciphered. By so blatantly attempting to lure the reader into interpretation, the result is a story that has a hint of hollowness if insufficient effort is dedicated in reading to create an interpretation. Too often we become aware of Walker’s knowing lack of intention. Events go from one to the other in a sometimes repetitive, staccato rhythm reminiscent of faux parables and, though it reads like a writer having fun, it occasionally ends up giving the story an odd dashed-off feel that is incongruous with the meticulous nature of the book as an artefact. The book is now leering at me accusingly, for being too lazy.
Of course, all of this could work in the book’s favour, to add to its ‘world-building’ design. We know that the story has the purpose of creating multiple meanings, and its style possibly works as a part of that. But as a storytelling experience, something seems missing. This illusiveness makes the story of Five Wounds somehow less exciting to read, somehow less absorbing, as we are too aware of the writer’s and the reader’s roles though perhaps this method, in theory, functions as a comment on the book that it imitates and, conceivably, parodies; the Bible.
But this comes in waves. For the majority of its telling, particularly warming into the second part, the writing alternates between robust allegory and surreal, comical fantasy, with the highlight being Cuckoo’s journey to claim himself a face. His tale is something ghostly, like the daguerrotypes of the long ago buried, with Walker’s words taking on some of the lore the book is torn from, as he deals in his grainy haunted images.
If you have the time to commit to this book, there is surely reward for what you put in. And you know a writer is doing something right when you seek out his previous work, hints of which are revealed in this novel, where the historical accounts are genuinely fascinating and always communicated with gusto. The punk history biography, Pistols! Treason! Murder! also illustrated by Dan Hallett, about the 17th-century Venetian spy, Gerolamo Vano, was the first part of their developing partnership. It is waiting patiently on the shelf.