The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol. 1, The Pox Party
By M. T. Anderson
It sounds like a fairy tale. He is a boy dressed in silks and white wigs and given the finest of classical educations. Raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers, the boy and his mother — a princess in exile from a faraway land — are the only persons in their household assigned names.
As the boy’s regal mother, Cassiopeia, entertains the house scholars with her beauty and wit, young Octavian begins to question the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. Only after he dares to open a forbidden door does he learn the hideous nature of their experiments — and his own chilling role in them.
Set against the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Anderson’s extraordinary novel takes place at a time when American Patriots rioted and battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
(summary from Goodreads)
Why I picked it up: I’ve read another book by M. T. Anderson, Feed, and I really enjoyed his style of writing. I’ve also read about the history of African slaves during the American Revolution as well as the real-life “experiments” that took place around that time and purported to test the abilities and faculties of non-Europeans, and I was hoping that Anderson’s portrayal of this history would be as pointed and haunting a read as the future-dystopian novel Feed.
Why I finished it: I wasn’t disappointed. Anderson’s writing in this book echoes the style of the time period (at times I found myself needing to break out the thesaurus), but under the formal prose and verbiage the pain and anger Octavian feels is quite poignant–in fact, the formal style often highlights the horrors that Octavian suffers at the hands of those who claim to own him and have taken control of his fate away. For example:
“Above all, brought up among the experiments and assays of these artists and philosophers, I was taught the importance of observation. They showed me how to be precise in notation, acute in investigation, and rational in inference. After I watched them pet a dog for some days, then drown it, and time its drowning…after such experiments as these, I became most wondrous observant, and often stared unmoving at a wall for some hours together.” (p. 9).
I often found myself sickened and enraged by the behavior and the hypocrisy of the so-called “scientists” that have made Octavian their experimental subject, but that was balanced by the admiration I felt for Octavian as he learned to recognize them clearly for what they are, and learned to defy them and their assertion that he is nothing but their property, their “specimen” with which they will prove that Africans are lesser than Europeans and deserve to be enslaved.
I’d give it to: Anyone who likes big words, historical fiction, and has a strong stomach–Anderson doesn’t spare the gruesome details, whether it’s everyday life or the fortunes of Revolutionary war.
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by: Francesca (Davis)