Here is an author who, in my eyes, achieved virtual perfection with his “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” (2017), certainly one of my all-time favourite novels. I still have plenty of John Boyne to read, having only read three of his children’s/young adult titles and two of his adult works but I’ve experienced enough to know that his latest is a marked departure from what I’ve read before.
This Irish writer is no stranger to the historical novel but here, in a book which can truly be called epic, he has taken on the whole of world history starting from Palestine in AD1 to the present day and beyond to 2080. This has been done, and here is the conceit of this novel, with ostensibly the same main character, or different manifestations of this character throughout history. It can certainly be seen as a novel of reincarnation with the main character (never named) moving on with his life in different times and different locations. There’s an obvious spiritual element here with its implied growth towards wisdom which initially made me a little nervous as to make this too explicit often results in leaden writing I’ve found (Paolo Coehlo springing to mind). I hoped Boyne would handle this with a lightness of touch to make it work.
He has to a very large extent. The novel reads like a series of interlinked short stories. At one point we move from Sweden in 1133 to China in 1191 and to Greece in 1223 with the narrative thread remaining fairly constant and with easily identifiable characters having regional variations of their names so the reader can pick up from where the plot left off each time adapting to the new setting and the often subtle changes which keep the narrative appropriate. This sounds confusing but it works well and builds an involving plot. Admittedly, there were times when I was enjoying a tale so much that I felt disappointed when it shifted onwards. He really has written 52 mini-novels in one, the amount of historical research must have been phenomenal.
This shifting means Boyne can have us visiting significant places at significant times introducing us to characters such as Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Attila The Hun and Donald Trump (he’s certainly not going to like this book!) This at times does run the risk of feeling laboured, a literary version of the TV series “Quantum Leap”. I actually prefer this novel when the historical figures are in the background and the location imbues the narrative with its sense of time. There are also occasional echoes of former lives through a sense of déjà vu with the Mayan figure Spearthrower Owl periodically creating a presence.
I’ve read books with a similar epic scope in terms of time (Edward Rutherford likes to do this) but nothing as ambitious as this which is extraordinary and I’ve begun to expect nothing less from this man but as a reading experience it is not quite up there with his very best. I think it just falls short of my rarely given five star rating. If you are interested in historical fiction and can’t quite decide what era to read about this is a perfect entry into discovering whole new literary worlds.
A Traveller At The Gates Of Wisdom will be published in hardback by Doubleday on 23rd July 2020. Many thanks to the publishers for tracking me down and providing me with an advance review copy.