A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is a difficult book. I mean, it’s technically amazing – a genuine and audacious piece of brilliance. But the reader experience is more of a rollercoaster.
The basic set-up is the novel following the life of a man from childhood to (probably) late middle age through loves, feuds, betrayal and loyalty. He and the central characters form a continuous narrative arc, while the scene shifts wildly in geography and time – so for a while, the novel is set in Korea’ for a while it is in Brazil; for a while it is in Egypt. The characters’ names change with each progression of time to fit the local language but they always start with the same letter. Little details change – our central character is of artistic bent but in one setting he will be a stone mason, in another he will be a weaver, in another he will be a bookbinder. And the scene shifts are not part of a plot – so it’s not one character travelling in time and space; the action from one chapter in Italy might then become a parallel back story in another chapter in Namibia. It’s weird, it makes reader engagement difficult, but it is also breathtaking.
So in each chapter, the scene shifts to an important historical setting. So we might have Attila the Hun (Hello Attila), or the Buddhas of Bamiyan, or Macbeth, or Shakespeare. These little vignettes are often more dazzling than the story itself – but whether they sparkle depends on how much you can identify the various references. Some of them that were unfamiliar to me (especially the ones set in Central and South America and the Far East) felt more like barriers to be circumvented. And I guess very few readers will get every section.
At some points the story seems stronger than others. The hunt for the cousin can sometimes be quite exciting, but towards the end the plot fizzles out. It’s also at this point that the neutral observer of world history starts to feel a bit more politically pointy. The penultimate section in particular, set in the present day, seems to use the plot simply as a vehicle for some (well made) political points. The final section is just plain weird and I haven’t got much idea what it was trying to achieve – things just disappear into a mist of metaphysics.
This is a brilliant book. I’m sure it is. Parts of it are treasure and will stay with me. There may be awards in due course. But after two and a half weeks (this was not a quick or easy read) I can’t help a slight residual wondering of what on Earth it was all about.
John Boyne takes the subject of child abuse in the Irish Catholic Church in this book and he does it so well. He focuses on the culture in the church which allowed everyone to turn a blind eye to abuse happening, rather than writing about the abuse itself.
His central character is a priest who is a good guy. He is horrified by the unfolding crisis. The story goes back and forward in time, very effectively, covering Odran Yates's childhood, adolescence, early priesthood and his career. Although he seems to be content as a priest, that has been his good luck; it is clear how many men of his generation, including him (those joining the church in the 1960s) were subject to a degree of pressure in "discovering" their vocation, and the damage that did when the vocation was to a life of celibacy combined with a position of isolated power.
As the story emerges, he realises the opportunities he could have taken to see what was going on, but also the degree of institutional corruption and misogyny that meant that people weren't heard when they did speak up.
He also shows, through the eyes of this one priest, how opportunities were lost to modernise and open up.
It felt like John Boyne was meant to write this book. There's a quiet dignity in this where there could have been drama. It's very readable, very involving.
(If a thread exists on this, I can't find it, but that happens to me a lot!)
I finished this book this morning and have thought about it on and off throughout today. I have read a number of books by John Boyne, some better than others, but have found them all easy to read. His most famous book is The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas which has been made into a film but which I have not yet read. He has a quiet unobtrusive writing style which gives all his books an easy flow to them. There is no unneeded language to get past to follow the story and I found this a good story.
It is based mainly during the first world war although parts of the story are told from a period just after the war and at the very end many years afterwards. The story concerns the friendship of two privates, Will Bancroft and Tristan Sadler, who train together at Aldershot and then serve together in France. As can be imagined it is not an easy novel to read although it is in many ways a surprising one. I have read many books set in this period but never one with quite this slant. It explores the meanings of courage and cowardice in a bit of a different way to books of this type as well as love and sexuality. I have found it yo be a really worth while read. One I would recommend.
I am about half way through this book and am finding it very easy reading. This is the second John Boyne book I have read, The House of Special Purpose being the first, although he is best known for his young adult book The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas which I have not read. Like other of his books Next of Kin sets personal stories against a backdrop of an important historical event. The House of Special Purpose was set in Russia during the first world war while this novel is set in 1930s London in which the affair of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson is beginning to cause concern.
The main character, Owen Montignac, comes from a wealthy family but finds himself unexpectedly on hard times while owing a great deal of money to one of the London under world. The secondary character, Gareth Bentley, is the son of a reknowned judge who has no desire to follow in his fathers footsteps and is looking for easy money. When Owen is faced with the choice of finding the money or risking "injury to himself and those close to him" action is needed and when he meets Gareth by chance he sees it "like a lamb to the slaughter". Gareth, although from a good family and having been to all the right schools, is not terribly bright and sees life as a bit of a lark. He quite happily allows himself to be drawn into Owen's plans.
Far from difficult to read this is an entertaining book. Probably a bit far fetched, as was The House of Special Purpose, but a good book to read between more demanding novels.
This was a fast paced supernatural story which I picked up on impulse when I was mooching around Waterstones.
It is a period piece set in 1867, which is where my issues start with it as it raises a number of questions as to accuracy. There is a hanging that is mentioned in this book which given the time would probably have been a public hanging, as it wasn’t until 1898 when an act was passed making them behind prison walls. BUT another anomaly in this story is that it states the hanging took place at Norwich prison wasn’t actually opened until 1887, on the site of the Britannia Barracks (the former home of the Royal Norfolk Regiment) and so I believe the hanging would have taken place at Norwich Castle. Finally, I may be picky here but in the 1860s women would normally have worn shawls for additional warmth, not cardigans and some of the language used seems to be very modern and not of the time.
Having said that, it was a fairly entertaining and easy read, but if I had had something else to read I would have probably not been so forgiving. It nods towards Dickens even having a character named Mr Cratchett, and a lot of the characters have a Dickensian feel to them. The main character a young girl who is telling the story is intriguing and likable. I love the opening sentence of this story, “I blame Charles Dickens for the death of my father". I read it to the end but I wasn’t overly enthralled by it, I think it was a tribute to the Gothic Victorian mystery, it is atmospheric but it’s not scary.