One regular passenger is Valerie, a cancer patient who takes his cab to her weekly therapy meetings. With each trip she appears thinner, weaker, until eventually Stephen is no longer called to 13 Wish Street and he finds himself upset at the assumption of her death. So much so that he asks the control room for news, does anyone know what has happened to her? The response he receives kicks him into a surreal adventure and takes the reader on an unforgettable journey in the process.
There is no number 13 Wish Street.
Refusing to believe that he has been picking up passengers that don't exist, Stephen finds himself drawn into the strange and dangerous world of 'Thirteen', a real or imagined existence where the normal rules no longer apply. He meets other inhabitants, gets into fights, falls in love, and finds his sanity pushed to the limits.
This is a book about the 'zone' - the space between night and day, the hazy otherworld, half-awake/half-alseep - a place where strange things happen. How appropriate then that I became wary of picking it up as the clock approached midnight, knowing that if I did so I would get sucked in to its addictive plot only to emerge out the other side to the sound of birdsong and the first light of dawn.
Beaumont has attempted the very difficult trick of interlacing the ordinary world with an extraordinary universe whilst keeping the reader believing in the story. The two obvious comparisons, although this will sound grand, are with The Magus and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. With those classics you are presented with a world that you know cannot possibly be true, but you are determined to stick with it and part of you wishes it were real. While reading them you become slight disorientated, the world outside of the book begins to take a new sheen. It is as if you are walking along a slight camber, or balancing on a kerb after a couple of drinks - just about keeping things level. All three books, to use a phrase I have used here before, fuck with your mind. Or is that just me?
Thirteen will not be everybody's cup of tea, but that does not stop it being an extraordinary book. If this had been published by Faber, Canongate or Picador (and it would be perfectly appropriate for any of those imprints) then reviewers and prize panels would be falling over each other to pour praise and awards upon it. As it stands, it has been largely (although not entirely) ignored. Reviews have been thin on the ground and the book chains have hardly touched it (according to their website, the book is currently only in stock in 6 out of 330 Waterstone's branches, despite the fact that it gets a 4 star review on that very site from one of their own booksellers). Honorable exception is Borders, who are actively promoting the book in their indie bay.
This is not really the fault of the publisher, Myrmidon, who have sweat blood trying to get retailers and broadsheet editors to notice. Nor are retailers to blame really, they have lots of books to sift through and can't possibly spot them all. No, it is the system that sucks. It is ludicrously difficult for a new small publisher to get their books noticed. Some take out press and trade ads, only to discover that they rarely lead to any book sales. Others try a charm offensive on retailers but with supermarkets largely unapproachable and Smiths ignoring small publishers completely the routes are somewhat limited. Many believe that the broadsheets will be eager to review new talent, and I suppose they are if the books are published by any of their mates. All in all it is bloody difficult to let anyone know that a new book is even available. Crossing your fingers is often the most effective method.
I am convinced that if anyone in a book chain actually read Thirteen then they would stock it immediately, that certainly seems to be what has happened at Borders and in the indies that have taken a punt. I don't really think this blog post will make a direct difference, but perhaps it will spark a little bit of interest and get a few people who can make a difference to give it a read.
I was blown away by this fine book and I suspect many others will be as well. I only hope they will be given the opportunity to do so.