Saturday 22 August 2020


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A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne           {Reviewed by STELLA}  
John Boyne has written the quintessential everyman’s novel. It has an intriguing premise: spanning all history with one man’s story at its centre ranging in time from AD 1 to 2016 and following a life from birth to an unknown future self (the epilogue / future self is intriguing). We meet our traveller through time in the opening pages, at his birth. It’s Palestine AD 1 and he is the second son to be born to a proud, violent father and a caring, slightly unorthodox mother. As you can imagine, the second son cannot please his father no matter his significant creative and imaginative talents that range (over time) from young artist to gifted craftsman (in various fields) to a spinner of words in many forms. A father that would rather rage against the world as soldier and womaniser with unfettered pleasure sees little use in the talents of his son and bemoans the fact that his first son has fled the home for greater adventures leaving him the hopeless second. This is a novel with family at its centre — firstly the child and his family, then later the man and his wives and children. Much misery, as well as joy, befalls our hero, and revenge or justice plays a large role in this man’s journey. There are some wonderful explorations and descriptions of place and the time. And highly enjoyable are the cameos of the famous and infamous dotted throughout the book. Our man in his various guises works on the Buddhas in Afghanistan, he is an assistant to Michelangelo, he sails with Abel Tasman and shares a jail with Ned Kelly. Each chapter propels us through time in about 50-year leaps: in the first part, entitled 'A Traveller in the Dark', we start in Palestine, find ourselves in Turkey, AD 41, then on to Romania AD 105 and Iran AD 152 and through to Italy AD 169. It’s a fascinating way to pin some of the greater historical moments into a work of fiction, and it is a work of fiction (licence can be allowed with the ‘facts’ as long as it stays convincing). For this is a novel where you are propelled forward by your involvement in this man’s plight, in his loves and hates, in his wanderings to find a sense of peace in either new places or new relationships, his joy of having a child, his pleasure in success, and his anger and sorrow when the fates strike him down. There are some wonderful moments in the book that keep you hooked firmly in this story. Italy, AD 169 — being forced as a child to be the Emperor’s son’s playmate to the extent of being locked in with him when he has the plague to keep him company. AD 260, Somalia — after finding himself captured during battle and becoming a slave. In Switzerland AD 214 — he finds himself in the opposite position: a slave owner. This juxtaposition balances the conflicting aspects of our traveller. In the fifth part, Boyne manages to place the action in a series of monasteries and chapels. Devastated by a mishap in his life, the man finds refuge in these peaceful places and uses his skills to pay his way. In Ireland, 800 AD, he is an illuminator; in Indonesia, AD 907, a sculptor. And so this pattern continues as he seeks the answers to his life’s misfortunes and seeks his cousin who has wronged him. The confrontation when it comes is not what he expects. Across time and place, he finds his brother, takes opportunities, seeks a family of his own, and encounters actions that harm him and others. A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom is ambitious, and like all of John Boyne’s novels, it is great story-telling: clever and inventive.  

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