Where to start? A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne is like no other book I’ve read. It’s a historical, classical, contemporary mash-up which takes a group of characters on a journey through the centuries, starting with Palestine in AD1 and ending in AD2080 living in a colony in space. The same group of characters feature in each chapter, advancing in time and moving location, each time with different names though always starting with the same letter.
In Palestine we first hear the voice of our, in the beginning, unnamed sole protagonist. This is his story told in soundbite chapters. He starts with his own origins, the meeting of his father Marinus and mother Floriana and progresses across two thousand years to the near future. At times there is violence, much against women but also brutal murder, torture and random killing. There is betrayal, cruelty, prejudice, foolhardiness and bravery, love and loyalty. Essentially it is the story of one family – mother, father, two brothers and a sister. One brother has the strength and brutality of his father, the other has the creativity of his mother.
As the decades pass and the story progresses, the brothers progress through childhood to adults, they fight, argue, divide, meet and divide again. Each chapter offers a snapshot of a place and time in history, sometimes set against the backdrop of real events and people. And always the family is placed at the centre of the action, with a supporting cast of recognisable characters who re-appear.
To explain the story here is too complex and would contain too many spoilers. Read it for yourself but prepare to be challenged. The print book is 407 pages long. I read it on Kindle and it seemed longer than that. Some chapters whizz by, others creep. Each new time/setting includes a little recap from the end of the previous chapter, a device essential in the first third of the book but I think dispensable once the structure and device is familiar to the reader.
Such an ambitious project, I read it with a spirit of adventure, never knowing what was coming next.
BUY THE BOOK
Read my reviews of these other novels by John Boyne:-
Stay Where You Are and Then Leave
A History of Loneliness
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
A Ladder to the Sky
If you like this, try:-
‘How to Stop Time’ by Matt Haig
‘The Pillars of the Earth’ by Ken Follett
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
A TRAVELLER AT THE GATES OF WISDOM by @john_boyne #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-4TK via @SandraDanby