Equator by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator)

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Equator by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator)

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Last time this French author revisited Conrad and Buchan, here he took me to an alternative world, where Graham Greene did historical fiction, with the idea of creating a continent-encompassing, post-western saga. Only some of that did I find to my taste.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2019
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857058737

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It strikes me that nobody can speak well of the Wild West outside the walls of a theme park. Our agent to see how bad it was here is Pete Ferguson, who bristles at the indignity of white man against Native 'Indian', who spends days being physically sick while indulging in a buffalo hunt, and who hates the way man – and woman, of course – can turn against fellow man at the bat of an eyelid. But this book is about so much more than the 1870s USA, and the attendant problems with gold rushes, pioneer spirits and racial genocide. He finds himself trying to find this book's version of Utopia, namely the Equator, where everything is upside down, people walk on their heads with rocks in their pockets to keep them on the ground to counter the anti-gravity, and where, who knows, things might actually be better. But that equator is a long way away – and there's a whole adventure full of Mexico and Latin America between him and it…

This was a book that was surprisingly different from what I expected. Now, I said last time, with Retribution Road, that the book was utterly different from what I expected, so something has changed. What has reduced the surprise is that this is in part a follow-on from the previous, and the flow is very much of a sequel, albeit one a newcomer can probably jump on board with. But what we had last time was a book that turned into a modernist take on a rip-snorter, one of those eloquent adventure dramas, probably published in the 1920s that too few people get to read these days. This book, however, drops the dare I say Buchan-eering spirit for something much different. Here is an author reminding me of another classic name. The referent I am thinking of never wrote historical fiction like this, but both can slam you down point blank in a rarefied foreign place without showing laptop research. Both really can indulge in heavy moral issues. Both, it might be said, have a lapse where female agency is concerned. The classic reference I think of here in comparison with this book is Graham Greene, and that is not said lightly.

Varenne is seemingly hell-bent on discussing masculinity and the problems caused by following those tropes throughout his career, and they do drop out of the book at times, although many italicised postscripts to several chapters, dressed as letters people would never be able to send – or even to write – bring us back to that topic and to this book's predecessor. I have to argue, however, that this book does kind of suffer at the hands of the previous. Partly because that was quite wonderful, but also because this is stifled at being its own thing. The first third is a follow-on from what has come before, and is almost too soapy a transition into what it doesn't really match with, namely the middle part here, which is the one most firmly set in Greeneland. The final third again switches, and I found myself thinking of Varenne as an author's author, but missing the sheer page-turning drive of the prequel.

Researching his output for this review, I find he has not only knocked out eight hundred plus pages for this couple of books, but there is already a third due to be translated I guess some time soon – and he has also presented some stand-alones, again partly based around masculinity and what brings the viciousness in that trait to bear. I have to think I'd prefer those, and I am beginning to think Retribution Road might have been a completely remarkable one-off. I've never liked The Great American Novel, and as much as I admire Varenne's efforts to make a set of books of similar ilk, I think on this evidence they might not all be to my tastes.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H Winthrop is for those who prefer their USA-set historical fiction on a more intimate scale.

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Buy Equator by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Equator by Antonin Varenne and Sam Taylor (translator) at Amazon.com.


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