The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation; Volume 1: The Pox Party - M. T. Anderson

At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.

I'd read about Octavian Nothing somewhere and hadn't paid it much attention, but it appeared in the rotating books at the library and was a National Book Award winner, so I was intrigued. I tend to like books with long overblown titles, and this seemed to fit the bill. Going into it, I knew nothing about it, not even reading the dust jacket flap. (I did, however, note that Anderson was also the author of Feed, which I had enjoyed. This book is significantly different from Feed.)

Octavian calls himself a prince, the daughter of Princess Cassiopeia. Together they live at the Novanglian College of Lucidity, where he is raised by a group of philosophers and scientists, dressed in the finest silks and white wigs, and given the best in European education. It's the 1770s in the New World, and the world is in turmoil.

And here we have a spoiler alert, because it's impossible for me to give more of my thoughts about the book without giving away a few significant facts which are not made explicit until a little ways into the book. Anyone who wants to approach this book with a fresh eye would do well to stop reading at the end of this paragraph. My overall verdict was that the book was well-written but didn't hold my interest too well in the first half or so. I thought it was worth continuing, though, and I'm glad I finished the book, but it wouldn't be at the top of my list of recommendations for anyone except maybe history buffs. I should also note that the book was shelved with Junior Fiction but is still a hefty book that's probably deep enough for many adult readers as well.

Spoilers ahead.

Partway through the book it's eventually made known that Octavian's mother, though she quite possibly was an African princess, did not make her way to the new world by choice, and certainly was not living in Boston of her own free will. Her beauty and charms notwithstanding, she was purchased from a slave trader and Octavian along with her. His upbringing is largely an experiment about the "African species" to examine his intellectual capacities. It's a historical fiction, and although it narrows its scope to focus on Octavian's life, the book paints a vivid picture of the life of a slave in the colonies. Things get especially interesting when the American Revolution starts gearing up. The ironies and hypocrisies involved in fighting for liberty and freedom while subduing a slave rebellion are revealed in a way that seems natural to the story.

I think my favorite parts of the book were the ones in which Octavian becomes a secondary character, with various reports and letters mentioning him in passing. It takes a different approach than the rest of the book, which is largely narrated by Octavian himself, in a weird sort-of Colonial English. Anderson does explain in an author's note at the end some of what he was hoping to accomplish (as well as what he is unable to do) and offers various notes about the history involved.

All in all, not one of my favorites, but maybe one of those "good for you" books. A tough subject made a little easier to comprehend.

Fed to jonathan's brain | November 14, 2008 | Comments (0)


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