John Boyne has in his novelistic career stretched a life over two and a half centuries (A Thief of Time, 2000); channelled Buffalo Bill (The Congress of Rough Riders, 2001); Captain William Bligh (Mutiny of the Bounty, 2008); ghosts in 1860’s Norfolk, (This House is Haunted, 2013); Gore Vidal (A Ladder to the Sky, 2018); set the action in the Winter Palace of the Tsars (The House of Special Purpose, 2009); World War 1, (The Absolutist, 2011, Stay Where You are then Leave, 2013); 1930’s London (Next of Kin, 2006); Nazi Germany (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, 2006); Ireland and the Church (The History of Loneliness, 2014, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, 2017); so a novel that stretches a life over two millennia and includes historical people and events we recognise is really just another slice from the vast John Boyne universe: testament to his wide interests, audacity, and skill. He is certainly ambitious.
Here in A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom the unnamed narrator born in AD 1 has the novelistic trait of NOT aging with the years so that in AD 214, as he continues his own story, he is 10 years old. Although events in the narrator’s life remain in his history no matter where the story takes him, and the story take him all the way to 2016 and on to 2080.
However, there is a feeling of A Traveller … being squeezed into the gambit that Boyne has prescribed himself. A person throughout their lifetime doesn’t exist alone. Primarily it’s to do with the family: these people travel along with you. Boyne overcomes this by deeming that if the protagonist linearly exists across centuries then his parents and siblings must also; names, except for their initial capital letter, change to suit the location; hence his brother Junius – in Palestine AD 1, becomes Jouni – Turkey AD 41, Juliu – Romania AD 105, and so on. Events also stay in our memory and can have repercussions in later life, these too are noted but the names of places and the principle players change similarly. This is acceptable and can be easily assimilated into the readers’ understanding of what the writer has defined; but all this has a cumulative effect: a distancing from the protagonist. And when magic, or is it divine intervention? intercedes to save our hero’s life – Greece AD 1223, an even broader distance is put between reader and protagonist; a protagonist that up to this point had been a centre of rationality, atheism and, to some degree, morality.
This did not change my enjoyment of the book, it’s still a fascinating, and unique read, but that enjoyment is skewed from my other experiences of Boyne’s work. There is not the same engagement I felt with the characters of his other work. This is a different book. So what is Boyne’s point here?
Someday, we may build towers taller than the eye can see, fly through the sky on wings, even live among the stars. But know this much; the things that surround us may change, but our emotions will always remain the same.
Humans will always be human.
The cause and spread of the Black Death (The Plague) was not known until the 19th Century, certainly not in the 14th as described in the chapter Norway AD 1349. But, the reader can object to these aberrations, like little jumps – Hey! Hang on a minute! – or accept that the universe of the book need not be exactly the universe of the reader. However, the more the reader has to adjust their universe from the one expected the more removed they become from the text and the less chance of engagement.
I haven’t yet read all of Boyne’s work – that’s an on-going pleasure – but A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is not the book to knock The Heart’s Invisible Furies (2017) from the No 1 spot of the best of Boyne’s work; nor A Ladder to the Sky (2018) from the No. 2 position … in this reader’s opinion.
You can buy the book, in various formats, here.