Book Review: Within Without, by Jeff Noon

This week, I’m once again braving the strange country of Jeff Noon’s imagination, as private investigator John Nyquist explores the mysterious city of Delirium in Within Without. This is the fourth Nyquist mystery to be published by Angry Robot, but knowledge of the preceding novels is not necessary to enjoy this one. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher.

This review contains an affiliate link to Waterstones, which will earn me a commission if used.

The term “bordering on madness” is one everyone will be familiar with, and might well have used themselves without really thinking too much about it. Jeff Noon seems to have thought about it a lot though, if the peculiar nature of the city of Delirium is anything to go by. It’s a place of borders, varying in permeability and construction; some physical, some magical, some internalised, all winding their way through the city and the minds of its inhabitants. At a time when the topics of borders and mental health are on a lot of people’s minds, it’s a clever and timely marriage of two seemingly disparate themes. The theme of liminality, of the effect a border has on something’s state as it goes from being a thing that WAS there to a thing that IS here, makes for extremely fertile ground here.

There’s a wealth of interesting and entertaining ways Noon chooses to use his setup. The very first border that Nyquist crosses, for example, is the one into the city itself, and is in the form of an eery green mist known as Fontanelle. Taking its name from the soft spot in a baby’s skull, it perhaps implies that the only way to get to the city is to go out of one’s mind, or even that someone – or something – else’s mind has to be entered. There is as much mystery woven into the nature of the setting itself as there is in the plot, which sees Nyquist attempting to track down the missing sentient image of a film star (and is every bit as beguilingly strange as it sounds).

This investigation unfolds through what feels almost like a series of vignettes – although given the nature of the setting, perhaps “episodes” is a more appropriate term – which vary considerably in their tone. Encounters with the strange inhabitants of the city make up plenty of them, as do struggles with borders, and there are amusing moments of farce, chilling encounters that test Nyquist’s sanity and bouts of introspective questioning to stretch his mental fortitude to its limits. While that might seem like it might lack cohesion, this isn’t the case at all – Delirium is a modern-day Wonderland, with gleefully madcap moments sitting comfortably side by side with body horror and witchcraft.

Accompanying Nyquist on his investigation is newcomer Teddy Fairclough, last seen in previous novel Creeping Jenny, and whose backstory is recapped with laudable brevity. He’s a welcome and likeable presence, with the two playing off each other well; Teddy is bright-eyed and keen, whilst Nyquist is the world-weary gumshoe who really has seen it all. Certainly in the earlier part of the story, the feeling of isolation that Nyquist has had to contend with before is less of an issue thanks to Teddy’s presence, and for all that Nyquist chides him (and himself, for bringing him along), it’s clear from the start how important the younger man is to him.

With his now customary skill, Jeff Noon has once again turned the detective novel on its head whilst simultaneously turning it inside out. Within Without is yet another unique prospect from a mind replete with off the wall ideas and engaging premises, and is sure to please fans and baffle unsuspecting newcomers in the best way possible.

Within Without is published by Angry Robot, and comes out on the 11th of May. You can order your own copy of the paperback through this affiliate link, or in DRM-free eBook form from Angry Robot themselves here.

Currently reading: The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison
Currently listening: Light It Up, Hot Water Music

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