Written by Jonathan Lyon — A detective with a drinking problem and a failed marriage. A hitman who finds a conscience. The psychologically damaged character who may or may not have done something really, really bad. The serial killer with a horrible ritual. Genre fiction can get so predictable you hardly need a criminal profiler’s skills to know what you’re getting inside of a chapter or two. Enter young author Jonathan Lyon, a painter with words, whose debut Carnivore must be read for its sheer originality. Crime book, literary fiction, contemporary tragedy; it doesn’t matter what pot you put it in, just read it.
Our narrator is 21-year-old Leander. As Carnivore opens he’s selling his body to an older man in a London hotel. He plays the vulnerable boy, enticing the John into beating him with a belt. With each strike Leander sees kingfisher blue. But why would anyone want to be whipped? Leander’s reason is that he’s tired of seeing ultramarine.
Leander has two unusual conditions. One is synaesthasia. He sees colours and tastes flavours in relation to his other senses. The other is more serious. His myalgia – chronic pain with an unknown cause – means he’s in constant agony. His trick’s belt buckle is a distraction from what he suffers 24/7. Blue makes a change from ultramarine. Plus, the man feels guilty for beating him and pays him extra.
When the deed is done, he heads off to meet Dawn, a junkie he lives with in a homeless shelter who sometimes substitutes for his dead mother. Dawn’s new man has given her a car and a flat and Leander is suspicious and jealous. So when they’re driving in her new car he causes a slight accident which cuts her head. You start to see that Leander not only takes the pain, he cruelly dishes it out too. As you read Carnivore you’ll see he’s got an extremely keen mind, an ability to seduce friend and foe alike, and the poetic skills to describe his pain and his hallucinations in ingenious ways.
Leander is the most original unreliable narrator and anti-hero you’ll encounter this year, or maybe even this decade. He stars in a book unlike any you’ve read before. You’ll see him use and abuse, deceive and confuse, live and let die, and risk his own life nihilistically and heroically.
His friendship with Dawn brings him into contact with three other key players. One is Dawn’s actual son, a male model called Francis who was straight before he met Leander. Then there’s Kimber, Dawn’s new fiancé who is a meth smoker, a smack trafficker and an unpredictable killer. The third is heroin. Leander constantly self-medicates with Dawn’s supply, and the drugs heighten the tension, pace, ferocity and chaos of the plotline.
The use of language in Carnivore makes it beautiful, horrific… and weird. In the middle of a tense situation Leander will suddenly describe how the buildings around him are deconstructing themselves and re-forming to become a ladder into the sky, or how his kneecap has separated from his body, turned into a turtle and crawled away. The carnivore concept suggested in the title is used metaphorically and as a motif throughout. Leander bites an attacker early on and tastes the man’s blood. Later he discusses the cooking of horse and donkey meat with a woman police officer. He treats Francis like his prey, and poses as prey himself. Even the author’s surname plays along with this overarching theme, phonetically at least.
Believability is important in any crime novel, and at first Leander’s narrative is intriguing but utterly unreal. Carnivore doesn’t feel like a crime story until halfway through. But you’ll discover a special author if you read Jonathan Lyon’s debut, because he sets it up perfectly. In two characters, Leander has met his match. At an intellectual level, it’s a transgender filmmaker called Iris who unwraps his cruel game of seduction which gives him a jolt. At a predatory level, Kimber is the big beast he will hunt. A tragedy in the middle of the story , alongside a personal realisation on Leander’s part, brings them into conflict. Soon our anti-hero needs both redemption and revenge.
There are brutal deaths, abductions, rapes and fights, to be sure. There’s an inner journey, and an insane, drug-fuelled, hallucinogenic physical one for our main character too. And there are some monumentally funny conversations between Leander and DCI Sanam in which every answer Leander gives is more surreal than the last.
Not everything is perfect. If anything, Kimber seems a bit too similar to Leander himself, too aware of his own complexities. This is probably intentional and there are so many other reasons to read this book it hardly matters. Leander’s race to save someone’s life and avoid punishment for his deeds makes Carnivore as gripping as almost any crime novel, but the way this book is written is something else.
No idea how the author will follow this up. Most likely with something entirely different, but here’s hoping it’s as good as this. Read it and be inspired.