In the name of reviewing books, I am often forced to read things I would have never otherwise picked up. Not being a huge science fiction fan, Hal Duncan’s Vellum was something I bought from a charity shop for £2 and never got around to reading, precisely because it looked about as sci-fi as any book I’ve ever purchased.
However, finding myself with a lack of decent material for review, I decided to take the hit and read Vellum for the good of the online community..to be honest, I’m still reeling. On the one hand, I found Vellum to be something of an aesthetic joy; stylistically stunning and packed to the brim with glorious descriptions and references to mythologies even I hadn’t heard of, it was a tour de force of alternative literature! However, after couple of hundred pages, I felt my mind wandering as I slowly lost any real concept of what was happening. Although I’ll admit the variety of interwoven plotlines wasn’t helping matters, it was less the complexity of the plot that was derailing me as how self-aware the book seemed. Vellum was literary form of the woman at the party you can’t stop staring at, not because she’s exceptionally attractive, but because she is going out of her way to act as if she is. By the final chapters, the book seemed more aware of itself and what it was trying to do than I was, which is never really how I like things to end.
I’m not somebody prone to criticising a book because it lacks the typical style of modern literature. In fact, I love quirky and unconventional books – anything that challenges me, or makes me read in a different way to usual is something I’m likely to enjoy. However, it wasn’t the complexity and obscurity that put me off Vellum– it was the pretentiousness that permeated every level of the book that made me want to stop reading. Somewhere amidst the chain-smoking, leather-clad characters, different fonts used for different storylines and perpetual references to just how much mythology Duncan had researched, I lost all sense of why any of this was actually interesting. The more I read, the less intrigued I found myself until, by the end, the only thing left in my mind’s eye was an image of Hal Duncan, hunched over a desk lit only by candlelight, desperately trying to create something cool. In fact, from this day forth, I declare the word ‘Vellumesque’ to be an appropriate way to describe trendy East Londoners.
To summarise Vellum for fans of popular literature, I would compare it the attention-seeking middle child of His Dark Materials and The Da Vinci Code; without Pullman’s mighty narrative or Brown’s ability to merge reality, mythology and fiction, Duncan’s creation simply screams “Look at me! See how different I am!” before denying that it even values your opinion. Without a doubt it’s an impressive read but, at the heart of it, it’s snobbery in book form.
– Reviewed by Ed