Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom: Stories are Universal

John Boyne is the consummate storyteller. His last two novels, The Heart's Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky were both brilliant, engrossing reads. I loved 'em immensely. But with his new novel, A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom, he pulls off quite the neat storytelling trick, even for him. 

Imagine a story told over 2,000 years, in about 50-year increments set in locations literally all over the world. But it's the story with the same characters. Only the times and places change. Confused? I was initially too. And a little skeptical.

But it works...mostly. The novel is essentially one guy's life story. The Character, as we'll call him, grows up, marries, has children, endures unimaginable tragedy, marries, suffers more heartbreak, sets out on a quest for vengeance, abandons said quest, reunites with this brother, continues quest, and so on and so on and so on. 

But again, the trick here is that each little segment of story — generally eight pages or so — is set in a new time and place around the world. Boyne spends a few paragraphs orienting you, and reminding you at what stage in the story The Character is in. And and then he just continues, whether he's in Eritrea in 340, China in 1191, or France in 1916.  

I know this sounds gimmicky, and I guess it is. And though it's not 100 percent successful — especially in the first half of the novel, things get a bit repetitive — it works more often than not. In the second half, as the times and places seem more familiar, the story really gains some momentum. It helps too that along the way, we get Bill-and-Ted-like cameos from famous historical figures who flit in and out of The Character's life — his sister marries Attila the Hun, he helps Shakespeare stage Julius Caesar, and there's many more. (Aside: If you're bad with remembering names — in novels or in real life — this is a perfect novel for you, because the characters' names change in each new chapter. It's obvious who each person is from the context, but so, and I can't emphasize this enough, you don't have to remember anyone's name!

This whole thing wouldn't have worked at all if the story he's telling was boring. But it sure is not. It's quite the swashbuckling yarn. This — let's go with the fancy term — bildungsroman has it all: Murder, betrayal, love and loss, a quest for vengeance, war and pestilence, and Donald Trump.  Wait, what was the last one?

Yes, so part of the point of this novel is to really examine the human condition: Have we learned anything in 2,000 years? Have we evolved to be more empathetic? More kind? More reasonable? Smarter? You'd think so, wouldn't you — but maybe not. 

Given how much I loved his last two books, a new John Boyne novel should've been an exciting event, and I should've rushed right out on pub day to buy the hardcover (or have read the ARC two months ago). But in reading about this one, it really did sound a little too strange. I knew I'd read it, but I wasn't stoked. And through the first half, I was like "Oh no, is this like a three-star Boyne novel? I'm so disillusioned!" But thankfully, and this is a lesson on why it's important to not give up on books (wink), the second half is so much more entertaining. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall for conversations between Boyne and his editor about the "rules" for this novel and troubleshooting some of the problems that no doubt came up. What is the narrator allowed to know from his "previous lives"? What does he "remember"? Etc. Those had to be fascinating conversations. And so if you're in the mood for something different, give this one a try.