Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Review

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“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

If melancholy could be said to have a patron saint, it would be Joan Didion. She travelled throughout California during the 1960s to try and understand what she saw as a confused and desperate time. Not the cheeriest subject, but interesting nonetheless. There’s despair, as this book describes a world of tumultuous change and violence—yet, reading it decades later, there’s also poignancy. We watch social movements grow and gather momentum when we know they will fizzle out and die, having accomplished few of their goals; this is a useful reminder of how difficult it can be to see all ends.

Didion’s perspective on the 1960s is raw and fascinating due to its frustration. Popular culture often sides towards romanticizing Flower Power and the few moments of peace, but Didion reveals destructiveness unchecked naivete can cause. Hippies come across less as fantastical dreamers, and more like perpetually drugged up cliché factories desperate for the illusion of change in a society that seems fundamentally broken.

And then there’s the writing itself. Didion addresses the world with prose utterly devoid of warmth and yet stays emotionally resonant. She was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century, with the eloquence of Nabokov and the restraint of Hemingway. You would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see her influence on some of the greatest essayists of our own time. Her sentences are devastating, delivering calculated punches to the reader’s solar plexus at just the moment for maximum impact:

“I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.”

There’s a moment in nearly every essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Didion seems to lament the lost dreams of both her nation and the individuals who strive and usually fail inside it. The mood is of an extended eulogy for a land of moral decay which she doesn’t seem certain was ever better than now anyway.

It’s the 1960s without the kaleidoscope of modern pop-culture obscuring the nastier elements, and thus a harrowing but powerful read.

Foundation: The History of England [Volume 1] by Peter Ackroyd – Review

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I recently had the realisation that I grew up in England, went to school in England, got a history degree in England… and yet was embarrassingly ignorant about how this country actually formed. I’d absorbed the basics of life since the Tudors, sure—those years had been hammered into my head by patient teachers in between naps—but what about how people had actually settled this land in the first place? Why had the Roman Empire spent so many resources to keep such a small, soggy island? What the hell did Richard the Lionheart actually do, aside from something something Crusades mumble mumble and his brief appearance in Disney’s Robin Hood?

So, I decided to remedy this, and picked up Foundation by Peter Ackroyd. This book has a lot of ambition. It wants to fold a country inside of its pages, and as such it’s light on detail but heavy on content. If fitting the total history of a country onto five hundred pieces of paper—15,000 BC to the modern day—sounds impossible, that’s because it is. There aren’t gaps in content here so much as caverns. That’s acceptable with pop-history, though, and if you crack the spine of this thing with managed expectations you’ll get an impressive outline of how England became England.

There are annoying interjections at times, with Ackroyd making assertions and declarations that scream out for explanation. You’ll be reading about a random Royal or Important Figure, and Ackroyd will casually mention how they boiled they boiled children, or fought a bear, or caught syphilis from a nun (I might be exaggerating the ridiculousness of some of these slightly, but not as much as you might think). And then quickly move on. “Wait!” the reader cries out. “Tell us more about the damn nun!” Nope, back to agriculture we go.

Every issue I had with this book came down to  the same lack of depth, which is extremely unfair of me considering that Ackroyd’s breezy approach to history is why I bothered to pick this up in the first place. There are fascinating details scattered throughout, and Ackroyd is an adept storyteller. His writing occasionally bordered on too melodramatic for my taste, but that may just be because I trudged through enough dry history books during university that I’ve developed a tolerance for dullness.

If you want a crash course in this weird little country of ours, Foundation is a promising place to start. It’s flagrantly unacademic, and as such gets a bit carried away with sweeping statements about some complicated issues, but that’s part of why it stays enjoyable; go in expecting to take some passages with a pinch of salt and you’ll be more than satisfied.

The Incarnations by Susan Barker


‘You will see me again. We are destined to be together. I will come back to you in dreams, or another life.’

The Incarnations by Susan Barker is an ambitious novel that centres around a taxi driver called Wang, who has begun to receive some disturbing letters from someone who claims to know him from past lives. We are swept across Chinese history and shown how these two are connected across centuries and reincarnations. Things get intense with Wang as this mysterious person begins stalking and threatening his family. A number of reviews call this book ‘China’s Midnights Children’, which I don’t think is fair to either Barker or Rushdie. While Midnight’s Children is meandering (in a good way!), The Incarnations is tightly plotted, to the point where, despite the lack of action scenes, the end of the book is so tense that it could almost be called a suspense novel.

Barker has a gift for pacing and quickly sweeping the reader into her worlds. When the past lives are inserted into the narrative, they could have come across as irritating as they often occur after cliffhangers. Instead, the tales of intrigue and betrayal are quickly engaging.

There’s a strange moment later in the novel, which shows the difficulty in fictionalising recent history: we’re shown young Chinese girls being forced to learn obviously skewed stories about the United States, which is explicitly criticised at times by the narrator; at other moments, we are watching these same young Chinese girls brutally torture those they suspect of capitalist thoughts and force feed their classmates pigs blood in a moment that feels like a crossover between Animal Farm and Carrie. I don’t doubt that things could be just as dangerous in Mao’s China as they are portrayed here. The purges and indoctrination are well documented. It’s that there’s something strange about a novel criticising biased portrayals about other cultures while at the same time showing China, over and over again, at its most brutal and cruel.

Despite its ambitions and engaging characters and story, The Incarnations never moves over the line from good to great to me. Things which engage sympathy rather than horror, and small touches of everyday life which can add verisimilitude to a story, crop up far less often than the Big Moments of strife, and the former would lend this novel pathos which is currently just lacking.

We’re shown the dazzle and oppression of this society, but the most riveting plots are of Wang’s marriage falling apart and the fate of his mother. That unfortunately makes the flashes to other lives not as engaging as they could be, despite the careful plotting, as they don’t feel entwined in the main narrative in the way that, say, Cloud Atlas managed.

I want to be clear: despite my complaints, I really liked this novel. The characters are well-crafted, and Barker’s prose is often intriguing even if it’s is let down by stilted dialogue. The Incarnation’s weaknesses only weigh it down as obviously as they do because its strengths helped it climb so close to greatness.