In colonial-era Boston, Octavian lives an unconventional life. His home is also the home of the Novanglian College of Lucidity, a group of philosophers and scientists who are providing Octavian with an excellent education even as they study his every move, right down to the movements of his bowels. His mother, once an African queen, is treated like the royalty she used to be, and Octavian is treated like a prince. But Octavian’s understanding of his life is built on a myth. Time, disease, financial ruin, and revolution all conspire to teach Octavian what his true situation is.
This, the first of M.T. Anderson’s two Octavian novels, is both intimate, with its in-depth first-person account, and wide-ranging, with its references to classical music and literature as well as philosophy and the politics surrounding the American Revolution. It’s an ambitious book and, I believe, a successful one. The story is original and interesting, and raises ideas worth thinking about (even if they might not be entirely new to adult readers).
I was fascinated by Octavian’s descriptions of his early life, which we only get from his child’s perspective. Readers coming to the book with the benefit of age and knowledge of past history will be able to understand many things that Octavian sees and takes note of but does not understand. Anderson does a great job dribbling out the clues to Octavian’s true status without making Octavian seem unnaturally unaware or annoyingly dense.
There are also some wonderful dialogues, such as the one between Octavian’s mother and the Englishman hoping to lure her to England with an offer of a luxurious flat along with his own “scepter and orbs” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). And there are great set pieces, such as the pox party that closes the second half of the novel, in which a group of friends voluntarily get injected with smallpox in the hopes of experiencing a mild version in controlled circumstances and thus developing an immunity.
Unfortunately, my enjoyment of this novel was hindered by the audiobook format. The book, read by Peter Francis James, is written in a style approximating 18th-century English. This is a challenge for any audiobook reader, but I’ve listened to enough classic fiction to know that it can sound like natural, flowing speech. This did not. English from that period would almost certainly use many long sentences, peppered with lots of commas, and I’m guessing that Anderson followed this pattern in the book. However, when read aloud, such prose can seem too choppy if every comma is treated as an equal pause. The sentences here definitely felt choppy. I’m not sure if the fault is in the writing or in the reading, but I suspect it was the reading. The fact that James did not bring a lot of emotion to the reading certainly didn’t help. (I think Octavian himself was a rather stoic person, so a stoic reading style makes sense, but it does little to aid the audiobook listener.)
Another aspect of the book that I found difficult was the section of letters in the middle, most of which were written by a Revolutionary War soldier. Anderson’s approach to this section of the story, when Octavian himself would have no access to journals or other means of communication, was a valid and interesting choice. I liked seeing Octavian’s presence become more and more significant as the letters went on. And again, Anderson does a nice job of revealing important information that the person doing the sharing doesn’t himself comprehend. However, I really didn’t care much about the troop movements and battles recounted in the letters, and my mind kept drifting. Also, after a while, the letters started to seem repetitive.
In print, I might have minded the letters less (I usually adore an epistolary format), but on audio I couldn’t get a sense of the letters’ relative significance to the story. Knowing something as simple as how long a seemingly off-topic interlude might be can make a tremendous difference. As it was, I thought that the rest of the novel, starting just past the halfway point, might be made up of letters, and I got to worrying about the details and trying to get myself interested in the letter writer himself.
This book may be shelved in the young adult section of your library or bookstore, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s unsophisticated or simplistic. This is really a complex story, and a well-told one. I do plan to listen to the next novel, only because I have it on hand on audio. I’m hoping that the interest I now have in Octavian’s story will help me get past the narration problems. If I find that it doesn’t, I may switch to print.