An Orwellian dystopia that is the city of Manchester in 2018 draws readers into a fascinating world created by Matt Hill in his novel The Folded Man. The parallels are easy to draw and features within this world are instantly familiar. Hill creates a world which has been all but destroyed, a world which seems to have lost humanity and, perhaps disturbingly, a world not too far from what we shall recognise as our own.
Brian, the protagonist is an old man who has seen the fall of this once vibrant city. He remembers what it was and acknowledges what it has become. However, he has come to accept Manchester as it is especially because it does not treat him any differently. As a disabled man restricted to his wheelchair, he has never had a comfortable or satisfying life. As a drug user and a frequenter at the local brothel, Brian is also the victim of a strict regime. He lives a lonely and unfulfilling life. Such an existence changes when what is supposed to be a simple job with a friend turns into a complete disaster. The plan was simple: pretend to be an old wealthy veteran and in doing so help a friend gain entry into a convention to steal corporate secrets. One mysterious incident after another plunges Brian, and the reader alongside him, into a world which no longer makes sense. At the conference, Brian is taken away to meet the organiser of the event who with cryptic messages points to a plan which Brian is clearly unaware of. Moments later, the speaker of the final seminar is brutally shot right in front of Brian’s eyes thereby thrusting the latter into a world where he does not belong; each step he takes drags him further into its depths.
Intrigue and mystery can be an exhilarating premise for any book. However, what is equally important is how the answers are revealed and the mystery solved. This is one area that can be improved in The Folded Man. The explanations for the many questions which arise in the book are answered by characters in the penultimate chapter akin to the role played by The Architect in the Matrix Reloaded. Brian is the reader’s surrogate, asking questions for which he receives the answers. Some readers might be satisfied by such a chapter in which all is revealed. However, that kind of solution feels thoroughly out of place in this book. For a novel that is extremely attentive to crafting a world and revealing aspects of it in subtle interesting ways, the ‘reveal all’ chapter feels like an easy way out. Instead of serving as a point of clarity, it disappoints. In addition, as a protagonist, Brian is complex, but isn’t fully realised; as a central character, he is a bit of a cypher – a figure with whom the reader does not fully connect or understand.
What Hill does brilliantly, however, is the crafting of his fictional world. His attention to detail enables a completely immersive response to its realities. Subtle hints point to past events that make the city what it is, but these are never fully explained. Such allusiveness works to Hill’s advantage, the mystery surrounding the circumstances both before and after the fall impels the reader to delve deeper into the world of the book. This is why the “reveal all” chapter is such a disappointment. Another of the book’s strengths lies in its range of minor characters, who are also shrouded in mystery but disclose details about the world they inhabit which gives that world substance.
The Folded Man is a book which takes you on a journey and makes you want to explore the complex world that it presents. It is a shame that the revelatory moment, which could have been its finest hour, feels somewhat lacklustre.