Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party

by M. T. Anderson
Almost a year too late, I finally got to read the book I was hungering for after I finished David Mitchell's incredible Cloud Atlas. Octavian Nothing shares many of the same themes, and Anderson is similarly adept at creating memorable voices. Octavian is a boy growing up with his mother in pre-revolutionary Boston in a house full of scientists. Like many kids, it takes him a while to realize that his upbringing is somewhat out-of-the-ordinary. For one thing, he and his mother are the only ones in the house who have names; everyone else is numbered. Everything that goes into, or comes out of, Octavian's body is weighed and made note of. He is taught Latin and Greek and to play the violin. He knows nothing of his father, only that his mother is an African princess, and perhaps this is the reason for the special treatment. Perhaps not. The larger world slowly creeps in to Octavian's consciousness: rumors of a coming Revolution, the realities of slavery, the pending financial ruin of the scientific commune upon which Octavian and his mother depend. This is a dark novel, with the feel of a fantasy, though all of it could have happened in that place and time. Anderson has done his research, and brings to life the horrors of slavery and the precariousness of life during wartime. Octavian himself is unforgettable.

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