Imagine a painting that covers a wall. Incredibly detailed images cover its surface, illustrating a frozen moment in time. Painted not on canvas, but porcelain. You watch this painting every day for a year. And each day there is a small change, something moves. Shifts. A new detail that grows into a new thread in that frozen moment. Gradually, over that year a story is played out. And eventually you are shown the whole.
This is the Secret Service. It is an expression of both stillness and motion, both poetic and beautiful. Where every paragraph is a world mapped out in prose. Set in a world much like our own, it is at the same time strangely divorced. Not just through time, but also in a timeless Europe it is difficult to recognize. It could be a hundred years ago, it could be two.
The story offers crystalline clarity, its pure simplicity standing as a solid frame that hold it all together. At its centre is a plot so nefarious that the heart of the British Empire is threatened with collapse. A group of decadent Europeans who would attack the very morality of the Royal Family through subterfuge constructed over decades. Britain's one defense against this plot is The Secret Service. A group of dedicated, miraculous individuals, who thanks to a unique genius, find themselves able to lose their form and become a still life background to the events that are played out before them. As beautiful gifts they are sent into enemy territory, to discover what they can of this plot.
The strengths of this novel reveal themselves early, the sheer descriptive strength of Walker's prose draws you along with almost breathless wonder. Yet at a languid relaxed pace that only gives a sense of urgency at certain key moments. You are taken outside the mundane and shown the world through the senses of objects. How does a vase experience the world, how does a rose experience the world through overlapping fumes. From outside it may seem strange, yet from the inside it all makes perfect sense. The background to the transformations, the explanations of the original discoveries, are expressed in such a poetic way that the logical science behind it loses all its coldness. There is nothing but beauty in this novel.
It is never dull, always inventive, and like the members of the secret service, inanimate objects with living souls that writhe within them. So, to the book, has layers within it. A story within a story for instance, that could almost have been a novel of its own, where a victim of a tragedy attempts to pull themselves back from the brink. In a symbolic world where little is exactly how it seems.
The return from this sojourn makes the rest of the novel seem all the more grounded in reality, despite its obvious fantastical elements. Even toward the end, when it tends toward the traditional, it never loses its sheen. My only disappointment was guessing the final outcome long before the conclusion, it was in the end the only way to steer the story toward the required conclusion, but it would have been all the more fascinating to play the story out with the rules laid down early in the game. For it is a game, a complex political and diplomatic game.
No minor disappointments could do anything to detract from this novel. It is without a doubt of the most enjoyable literary experiences you are ever likely to have. Like an epiphany gradually carved over four hundred and fifty pages, one that ends only with the turning of that final page.