As Lebbon himself notes in the introduction to the 2002 edition, Mesmer is "just-about-a-novel". It is only 167 pages (about 40k words), and "hovers in that grey, indistinct area between novella and a novel, a mutant child of both that sits quietly in the corner at parties nursing a glass of mudium-strength beer and saying, 'Well, believe it or not, I want to be this length.'"
The novel focuses on the idea of a wall of faces, with tortured souls trapped within. This isn't a spoiler, as one can see from the cover, taken from Amazon:
It is worth quoting Lebbon's own website about the inspiration for the book:
The inspiration for this book came from a news story about a woman in Italy who was charging people admission to her kitchen. And they were paying. Reason being, the faces of dead folk were supposedly manifesting in the flagstone floor, appearing as patches in the stone, very recognisible, very definite. This gave me a brief but vivid image of a wall containing lost souls, souls torn unwillingly from their host bodies, kept in the wall like a sort of ethereal prison, faces pressing out in an eternally doomed escape attempt...
As the novel opens, the protagonist Rick spots an old girlfriend, Pen, at a service station. This is a bit of a problem, as Pen was dead -- murdered -- ten years previous. The vision of Pen eludes Rick, though he makes quite a scene in the process of trying to find her, much to the consternation of his wife.
He has almost convinced himself that the vision was only his imagination, when he starts to receive mysterious phone calls about Pen. Rick sets out in search of answers, which eventually brings him into contact with the Mesmer, his sadistic agent Temple -- and the wall of souls.
The book is a short, fast read, and is imbued with a melancholy air. Rick is haunted by his first true love Pen and her horrifying death. Most of the story follows the various characters -- both good and bad -- in their quests; the wall of souls only makes an appearance at the end of the book.
I enjoyed Mesmer. I had mentioned in my previous discussions of Lebbon's work that he often focuses on older protagonists who have suffered some sort of loss, and must come to grips with it during the story, and Mesmer is no exception. I also found the same weakness, however, as in the other Lebbon novels: the story seems slightly undeveloped. Things seem to end, and conflicts never get resolved... they just stop. Many questions are never answered, as well. This may be part of the point of Lebbon's work, but I personally find it a bit unsatisfying.
I will, however, keep reading Lebbon's work. He is a solid author with some very creative ideas, and Mesmer was an excellent first novel.