Lexicon by Max Barry book review

Words spell murder in Max Barry’s book Lexicon

It comes as no surprise to hear that the film rights for Max Barry’s fifth novel have already been snapped up. Although it’s a story about the dangers of language and the power of words, it’s a very cinematic novel, if not in terms of structure then certainly in terms of its influences and action set-pieces.

When Wil Parke is kidnapped from the airport by armed men, he finds himself in the middle of a battle for something that may or may not be locked in his memory. Although he can’t remember it, it seems that he has witnessed “the bareword,” a word of extraordinary power that a group of people known as poets is fighting over. Poets are people who can use words to convince people to do nearly anything. His captor needs the word to stop an extremely dangerous poet, codenamed Virginia Woolf, but can they recover it in time?

The idea that words can kill has been used to great effect before in novels like Tony Burgess’ Pontypool Changes Everything and Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts. Barry intertwines this concept with paranoid conspiracy theories, sinister schools, even throwing in an amnesiac protagonist for good measure. While he might be using familiar elements, Barry uses them to create an intriguing fast-paced thriller.

The narrative is split fairly evenly between Wil’s breathless journey in the company of his unhappy rescuer and high-ranking poet Eliot, and Emily, a young girl who is recruited into the poets’ secret program and sent to the school. In addition to the influences we’ve already mentioned, Emily’s story brings to mind a lot more specific influences on the book. It’s interesting that Matthew Vaughn bought the film rights to the book as the school Emily attends feels rather like Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

The atmosphere of general paranoia and suspicion is well established by the use of incorrect news reports of the events of the previous chapter, as well as online mutterings about how the government keeps finding new ways to keep tabs on its civilians.

You can sometimes see where Lexicon is going but the novel’s revelations are no less satisfying for that. Barry’s tale of international intrigue and conspiracy is backed up by some excellent horror beats (including one expertly-written “What’s in the box?” sequence) and characters that are both complicated and likeable. The impulsive Emily is given an intriguing moral ambiguity, while Wil’s hapless confusion is never overplayed and meshes nicely with Eliot’s cold-hearted pragmatism. There are casualties in the book and, although it moves quickly, you do not lose the sense that the danger is real and the consequences potentially devastating.

At times the book is overly cinematic. There are one or two sequences with Wil and Eliot on the lam that feel as though Barry is describing a scene from a film, and at those points it’s difficult not to think that it would work better in a movie, but Lexicon is a highly entertaining, engrossing read.