A gothic tale becomes all too shockingly real in this mesmerizing magnum opus by the acclaimed author of FEED.
It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother — a princess in exile from a faraway land — are the only persons in their household assigned names. As the boy’s regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments — and his own chilling role in them. Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson’s extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
“It boots us nothing to feel rage for things that long ago transpired. We must curb our fury, and allow sadness to diminish, and speak our stories with coolness and deliberation.”
Going into the novel, I wasn’t quite sure what the story was going to be about and was pleasantly surprised. It is undoubtedly one of the strangest books I’ve read this year though I’m not quite sure why that is. However, I can tell you that it is a very powerful story that brought to life a period in time I knew little about.
It is hard to talk about any part of the story without giving anything away so you’ll have to forgive me for being vague. Octavian is part of an experiment that is extremely racist in nature. I didn’t think that any of this was true while reading but when I found out that it was true – that people actually did these experiments, I was shocked and disgusted.
The fact that this is all historical fiction, and not just some alternate version of the past, gives the story a certain weight to it. By this I mean that it is easy to accept that horrific things occur in some fantasy world, but to think of them as actually happening is another thing entirely. The torturing of slaves, the blatant racism, the disregard for their lives and the false hope – referring to the fact that the slaves were promised freedom is they would fight in the war. It is only 100 years later that Blacks are given freedom, and it takes another 100 years for them to gain equality – depending on your definition of the word.
The novel is very atmospheric and the writing reflects the time period and is gorgeous. You get a very good sense of what it was like to be living in the late 1700s and the tension’s mounting before the war. There is also the fear about Small Pox and the innovative idea of inoculations, hence the title of the story. Most of the novel involves Octavian’s life in the College of Lucidity and describes his highly unusual childhood filled with art and science. Due to this immersion into culture and philosophy Octavian is extremely bright and is a talented violinist.
The last quarter of the novel is about the war itself, and through a series of letters, we are made aware of Octavian’s whereabouts. The was was is described as horrific and terrifying and we get a few gruesome scenes. Other that that there is a lot of menial labour, digging trenches and waiting for things to happen.
The characters are extremely complex and who is good and who is bad depends on perception. I honestly wanted to hit some of the characters for all the horrible things they do and their narrow-minded views. Also all of the scientists for their horrible experiments. Private Ev Goring and Dr. Trefusis on the other hand are truly amazing.
Octavian’s story is heartbreaking but amazing at the same time and I cannot wait to read the conclusion to his story. Highly recommended.
“[O]ften that which most we fear births the resolve that spurs us on to altitudes we could not have achieved, had we continued walking on our customary paths.”
“Music hath its land of origin; and yet it is also its own country, its own sovereign power, and all may take refuge there, and all, once settled, may claim it as their own, and all may meet there in amity; and these instruments, as surely as instruments of torture, belong to all of us.”