I’ve had this one on my shelf awhile, and it almost went back to the library unread except that it’s one of the books on my summer YA class reading list. I’m a big fan of getting things done early if they’re things I want to do… just don’t ask me about my final project due tomorrow!
Anyway… I have to say that if this hadn’t been on my reading list, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. It’s very different from the books I usually read — it’s historical fiction, it’s partly epistolary, it’s written in the tone of the 18th century, it’s more of a narrative than a plot-driven story. It has a really long series title: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. But I did finish it, and I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t really like it.
Here’s the plot: There’s a kid called Octavian who lives with a bunch of nutty scholar-types who are performing experiments on him because he’s a Negro and they want to know if he and his “homo afri” brain are as good as them with their “homo europaei” brains. These aren’t painful experiments; they consist of lessons in music and classical languages mostly and are just meant to see if Octavian is actually able to learn them. Not a big deal… well, until the scholars’ main benefactor kicks the bucket and the new guy in charge decides to prove that Octavian can’t. Then Octavian runs away and we are told his story through the letters of others as he tries to have freedom in Revolutionary War-era Boston. How fun.
I liked Octavian, and rooted for him as he slowly discovered the truth behind his living arrangments and the world around him. I liked his sympathetic friends, and I even felt for some of the not sympathetic characters because Anderson did a good job showing the flip side of the whole slavery thing. I didn’t really like the long stretches of nothing happening, but I know that Anderson was making a point and I appreciate it. I guess that’s how it is with more literary novels, for me — I might not really like them, but I appreciate how they’re built and executed and I’m glad I’ve read them. Unfortunately, I think my favorite part of this book was its presentation — deckled edges and an 18th century-style title page. Lovely.
Basically, don’t go into this novel expecting excitement. The full title may include the words “astonishing life”, but that might be just the tiniest bit hyperbolic. 🙂 Maybe in the second book it gets more exciting?
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