It is not uncommon that much of America’s unseemly past is often swept under the rug. People are not fond of confronting what deeply misguided, narrow-minded, and flat out misinformed gits our forefathers could be (not all of them, of course, but an upsetting majority). Therefore, when an author attempts to take on that unhappy history and makes readers reassess aspects of our past and present, well I would consider that novel a rousing success. And I am not alone in this thought. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson won the National Book Award in 2006 for its engaging and innovative storytelling and eerie take on American history.
In all fairness, I did not have any idea what this book was about going into it, which I think may be the best way to read it, a contrary concept considering this is a review. So if you would like to go into this novel completely blank, stop reading here. Just take my word that this is a magnificent, engaging, and heartbreaking novel and you will not regret reading it. If my word is not enough, please read on!
The novel takes place in an America on the cusp of revolution, where freedom is on the lips of many but not necessarily prepared to be given to all. Octavian is an African prince, brought to the new world in his princess mother’s belly, forced by unfortunate circumstances into bondage, but a curious bondage. Octavian’s mother was purchased by the Novanglian College of Lucidity, a collective of philosophers and scientists in eighteenth century Boston, Massachusetts. Together, the scholars raise the boy with his mother. He’s given a classical education, taught Latin and Greek, taught about science and observation. He practices the violin and his mother takes up the harpsichord. His childhood is thick with memories of his beautiful and witty mother entertaining scholars and guests of the college in her salon. Octavian goes through his lessons, for all he can tell treated as the prince he is, dressed in silks, but unknowing of his true status in the house until he opens a forbidden door detailing the ghastly nature of his residence in that household, namely, that of specimen.
In their clinical way, the scholars of the College treat Octavian and his mother as experiments to test whether they are just as apt in intelligence as white men. It is a ghastly and horrifying ordeal. It turns the stomach to think about. The novel begins with a somber tone but still relatively light, but as Octavian gets older, the tone grows ever more somber and chilling as the nature of his bondage is made plain to him and to us as the audience.
Octavian’s voice and the attention to detail throughout make this book a harrowing read. It is a true historical novel in its commitment to the time period from the cadence of the characters to the atmosphere. It transports the reader into the past. In addition, as Octavian is the narrator, I felt very close to him. Whatever horrors he went through, I felt very plainly. There are some atrocities and inhumanities in this novel that are difficult to absorb. But it is for that reason that I believe this book is such a great success. It is a fictionalized account. This college and this boy did not really exist. But the circumstances of the time are all very real, including the vicious mistreatment and dehumanization rampant in the institution of slavery.
I found this to be an intense and engaging novel, at parts memoir, at parts epistolary novel, but always in that rambling and austere style of the eighteenth century. It is deeply sympathetic and emotionally engaging. Also, from a purely aesthetic point of view, the hardback I read was just lovely, over-sized with a deckle edge. It is a beautiful, beautiful object.
That being said, if you are a fan of historical fiction, I do think you will like this book, but it is not an easy read nor should it be. That which has the courage to reexamine the past in all its grisly nature is never easy, but it is definitely worth reading. I anxiously anticipate reading volume 2 and learning the conclusion of Octavian’s sad history.
Until next time!