The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
|The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Robin Leggett|
|Summary: Looking at the final days of Ceausescu's Romania, this first person narrative is one part Le Carré, one part Bill Bryson and one part an account of everyday life under Ceausescu's bizarre Stalinist world. It feels very realistic and at times you will forget that this is a work of fiction. There are also plenty of wry and satirical moments to lighten this account of a sinister regime where everyone is watching someone.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 356||Date: June 2011|
|External links: Author's website|
'The Last Hundred Days' in question here are the final days of Ceausescu's Romania in late 1989. Narrated by an unnamed young British expat who has a job offer from the English department of Bucharest University, despite never having interviewed for the job, we get an insight into the life under communist rule as Eastern bloc countries all around start to open up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are told that McGuinness lived in Romania in the years leading up to the revolution, and this is no surprise as there is an authenticity here that could only have come from some level of inside knowledge.
It's a fascinating insight, and one which I enjoyed very much, although there are a few qualms that are worth pointing out. For a start McGuinness takes quite a while for the story to get going. This is his first novel and he is apparently also a poet and this comes as no surprise in the first 50 or so pages as he never misses an opportunity to provide a metaphor or simile in his descriptions that can lead to the book seeming a little 'over-written'.
However the biggest challenge is that the book has a fairly tenuous relationship to anything that would conventionally be called a plot. The narrator's experience has moments that might be considered to be a plot-line as he finds out what is happening to friends he meets, but the driver of the action is the historic events. This is a problem as we all know what happened and in fact while there were signs of some changes during the last one hundred days, when the end came it was all rather sudden. Neither does our narrator seem to have much to do in his job - he meets some students outside the university and frankly it is difficult to see how he knew who they were. You might also argue that a junior, expat teacher wouldn't have access to the relatively senior members of the regime that this book suggests.
Yet for all this, it doesn't read like a work of fiction. It reads more like a cocktail of one part Le Carré, one part one of those accounts by British journalists of the last days of a regime and, what makes this so readable, one part Bill Bryson at his light hearted best at pointing out the ridiculousness of situations. The Bryson element is provided by the narrator's expat friend, Leo, another teacher in the department who has all the best lines. Leo is involved in the black market and has enough detachment to comment on things but enough inside information to know what's going on.
McGuinness portrays very well the danger and corruption of the regime and what it is like when everyone is watching everyone else and no one can be trusted. We see a mixture of dissidents, party apparatchiks, spies and ordinary people struggling to protect their own interests under Ceausescu's crazy world. Of course, like any good Eastern bloc story, we also get the 'man from the ministry', here in the form of a fairly ineffective British diplomat who is also struggling to make sense of what is happening.
It's a difficult book to categorise. It is fiction, but it feels like non-fiction. It has spy elements, but it isn't a conventional spy plot of good versus evil. It is often satirical and funny, but the situation is far from that. After a slow beginning, I was hooked.
This year's Booker long list is something of a busman's holiday for head judge, former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington. Also on the long list is Snowdrops by A D Miller which also looks at life in the Eastern bloc, this time in post-communist Russia.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness at Amazon.com.
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness is in the Man Booker Prize 2011.
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness is in the Costa Prize 2011.
The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness is in the The Desmond Elliott Prize for Debut Fiction Published in the UK 2012.
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