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The Chameleon by Samuel Fisher. A book review by Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska

By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019

If you are one of those people who takes a book with you everywhere you go, then imagine if that book was actually sentient. More than that, imagine every book you take is the same sentient book that changes content to follow you through your life. Lifetime after lifetime, this book is now 800 years old. It is called John and it is the narrator of Samuel Fisher’s brilliant and ambitious debut novel, The Chameleon.

John has ‘lived’ for over 800 years and now he chooses to tell the story of a British Cold War spy while interweaving hundreds of years of his own experiences. The narrator is looking at Roger, a former Cold War spy, from a shelf in his bedroom while Roger is on his deathbed. John makes an effort to retrace the full extent of his owner’s life for the reader. Roger was a smart and tacit university student reading Russian when he was recruited to join the British secret services. The first time Roger met Margery, John was disguised as a copy of The Idiot by Dostoevsky, so he was able to observe the flirtation between the two of them. But the love story in the book is not an easy one. Roger soon has to leave England and go to Moscow as a spy. He takes John with him, but Margery is left behind. Eventually the two find a way back to each other and after a brief time together in London, their daughter Ruth is conceived. Meanwhile, Roger is transferred to Siberia where he manages to produce good intelligence by meeting a secretive Russian Colonel that is asking to be taken to the UK. The interests involved and political mixed with personal are too much and eventually catch up with Roger and his family in a tragic turn of events.

The title of Fisher’s book, The Chameleon, allows for straightforward interpretations, but also one that spans through the entire text. The most obvious metaphor is for the narrator as a chameleon, a book that can disguise itself as any other one and have people never question its sudden appearance or disappearance. But the first time a chameleon is actually mentioned, it is in relation to the protagonist Orlando in the eponymous novel by Virginia Woolf. Orlando begins the narration as a man but by the end he has become a woman. When John retells the story, he calls Orlando a chameleon. Yet the more interesting observation is John’s comment about Orlando as a woman – ‘She is a character that I can sympathise with’.

This is a thread worth following through John’s narration, even as he passes to Ruth’s daughter Jessica upon Roger’s death. Before finishing off the story, John tells an anecdote that features a crow, a pitcher, some stones and water. He confesses that the story had not made sense to him for a long time. He used to think he was ‘the crow, the pitcher or the stones’, perhaps because he is able to morph into any book and is used to taking different shapes. But after a time, John realised he was the water that Jessica, as the crow, should drink. At this point the chameleon becomes the reader – John is a narrator but also a reader of fiction that feels a need to identify with certain characters. Like John, the reader of any novel will search for shared traits to align themselves with the characters. Here the meta narration is complete with the suggestion that the real chameleon is the person experiencing the text and going in and out of the different characters, experiencing the story through them.

In all, The Chameleon offers its readers an experience of the British intelligence during the Cold War, but more so one of a difficult but committed love story. All that is enabled by a unique narrative style that constantly challenges the reader’s knowledge of a wide literary canon and their sense of empathy.

Ralitsa Chorbadzhiyska

The Chameleon is published by Salt

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