The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation Volume 1 The Pox Party by M T Anderson
|The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation Volume 1 The Pox Party by M T Anderson|
|Category: Confident Readers|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: Imaginative, intelligent, difficult and disturbing, this Swiftian story of slavery and revolution is a stunning achievement. A seemingly unsympathetic hero digs his way remorselessly under the reader's skin. Stylistically difficult, the book may prove too much of a challenge for some readers.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: October 2007|
|Publisher: Walker Books Ltd|
It's 1775, and Octavian is living a curiously privileged yet circumscribed life in Boston at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Octavian and his mother reside with a group of rationalist scientists and philosophers. Octavian's mother is pampered and worshipped as a princess of African birth. The upper social echelons of Boston are full of men competing for her exotic attentions. Octavian is by turn pampered and disciplined. His lessons are demanding and the smallest failure is harshly punished. Yet he is dressed in silks and satins and educated by the finest minds of the day. He learns Latin and Greek and provides virtuoso performances on the violin. Everything he does is noted - right down to how much he eats. He is even required to defecate into a golden dish, so that his faeces might be weighed.
Eventually, Octavian discovers the truth - he and his mother are slaves, and his privileged lifestyle is no more than another of the Novanglian experiments. His benefactors simply wish to ascertain on which side of the Cartesian dualist divide black people lie. As the Wars of Independence loom ever closer - we are treated to a first hand description of the Battle of Bunker Hill and a second hand one of the Boston Tea Party, both fabulous - and the Novanglians find their patrons less generous, Octavian comes to understand the horrific extent to which bias and greed skew the actions of his interlocutors.
Oh, my gosh, this is a fabulous, fabulous book. Its scope is massive - expounding the murkiness in the birth of the United States, a narrative picaresque in which an unsympathetic-by-circumstance character wins around the reader, a thematic background of sophisticated and imponderable philosophical, scientific and moral questions. Like many of the early novelists from the period in which Octavian Nothing is set, Anderson eschews a traditional narrative. There's just too much going on to cope. Instead, we have multiple viewpoints, epistolatory sections and even times when events become too momentous for words - and instead, we get Tristram Shandyesque crosshatchings and scribblings that replace the action. There is also a great deal owed to Defoe - the Novanglian College is straight out of Gullivers Travels. This satirical element prevents the book from becoming too painful - and I'm sure without it, it would have.
We see Octavian develop from a tremendously unsympathetic, objective, self-possessed little boy, the product of his "education", into a sentient, thinking, ethical and passionate human being. And Anderson treats this ultimate irony with great delicacy - this child's humanity develops only at the point when the experiment says he has failed and the Novanglians consign him to the wrong side of the dualist divide. The other ironic strand in the book is treated with more vigour - how is it that that those freedom fighters fought for the right to keep slaves?
I absolutely loved Octavian Nothing and cannot recommend it highly enough, but with just one caveat - stylistically, it is extremely challenging. Anderson has used eighteenth century diction and syntax throughout and while this lifts what he has written from the good to the great, it also perhaps restricts Octavian Nothing to those prepared to make an effort. Reluctant readers need not apply.
My thanks to the good people at Walker for sending the book.
Readers might also be interested in what life was like for black people in London just a few years after the Boston Tea Party setting of Octavian Nothing. If so, they could do no better than to look out Jupiter Williams by S I Martin.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation Volume 1 The Pox Party by M T Anderson at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation Volume 1 The Pox Party by M T Anderson at Amazon.com.
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