John Boyne’s bold, swashbuckling new novel “A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom” stretches one narrative over two millennia — from AD 1 to AD 2080 — with each chapter dropping the reader behind the eyes of its unnamed narrator at different junctures in history.
In fact, its structural audacity belies a very straightforward plot: an artistic boy grows up in the shadow of his violent father and favoured missing brother. Over the course of his life he suffers many great tragedies: not least a savage betrayal by his cousin, which leads to a quest for vengeance at the expense of everything else. The same characters are reincarnated, time and time again, in various settings — from Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Greenland, England, and more — who mesh with real history, and mingle with prominent people from those periods: expect cameos from the likes of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Lady Macbeth and Attila.
The expediency of Boyne’s storytelling means its historical texturing is modest rather than rich, which works in favour of its pace, but lacking the rich detail some readers might crave. This vast canvas is compressed into 430 pages: it’s more exhilarating thriller than it is Hilary Mantel facsimile, and therefore more in line with my personal sensibilities. I don’t want a thousand page slog through history: I want a rollercoaster.
“A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom” is a seismic epic. It solidifies Boyne as one of the most interesting writers at work today. It’s a work of genius, that begins to creak a little as it reaches its conclusion, bearing the weight of all that’s come before, but wildly entertaining and intensely compelling.
Number Of Pages: 448
Published: 21st July 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Country of Publication: GB