The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: v. 1 – M.T. Anderson

Winner of the National Book Award 2006

I picked this book up after seeing C.B. James mention it as one of his favourite reads of 2008.

The book is set in Boston during the 18th Century and centres on Octavian, a young boy who lives in a strange house with his mother and an array of unrelated men. He is confused by his life, his vague memories of a past in Africa and the role of all the men in his household. As the book progresses Octavian and the reader slowly learn the shocking truth about his life….

I found this book very hard to get in to. Octavian’s confusion meant that the reader had no idea what was happening for a while. The book was written with a very flowery language, which although not difficult to understand, meant that reading did require a lot of concentration and this also distanced me from the characters.

The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.

A further problem was that all the male characters in the book were referred to by numbers, rather than names. My poor little brain just couldn’t keep track of who was who. By the time I’d read and re-read everything and worked out what was happening I had lost interest in the story. I just didn’t feel that the effort I had put into understanding it was rewarded.

This book is marketed as a young adult book, but I’m not sure many teenagers would have the concentration to get through it. I think this book has many similarities with Beloved by Toni Morrison – it is very literary, hard to understand and tackles some difficult subjects. If you enjoyed Beloved then I’m sure you’ll like this, but it was too much like hard work for me.

Have you read this book?

Did you enjoy the rest of the series?

Do you enjoy reading books that require a lot of concentration?

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  1. Fyrefly says:

    I listened to both this book and the sequel. I don’t think I could have gotten through them in print form; the flowery language is much easier for me to understand hearing it rather than seeing it. Even so, I didn’t really care for either of them, mostly for the reasons you mentioned. Octavian’s so distant and unemotional about everything that it was hard for me to connect with him or care about the story.

    1. Jackie says:

      Fyrefly, It is good to know that I’m not alone in my opinion of this book. I can see how listening to it would make the language easier to understand, but it must have made those number names even harder to follow. I’m not going to read the sequel – too much like hard work!

  2. Steph says:

    I hadn’t heard of this one, but I generally don’t mind books that are weird… and this one sounds weird! That said, I generally do not like overly flowery language, so that could be a dealbreaker for me… I think this is one I could have fun reading, but I’d probably have to be in the right frame of mind (sometimes I’m more willing to work at my reading than at other times).

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, I don’t mind work sometimes, but felt I wasn’t rewarded for it in this case – the character was too distant for me. It isn’t as weird as it sounds, but it is a bit disturbing. Perhaps you should avoid this as there are plenty of fantastic books out there.

  3. claire says:

    I’ve wanted to read this last year but didn’t get to. And the second volume as well. I’ve also heard it’s a bit complicated for children, which is the reason I thought I might like it.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I struggle to believe this is marketed at children – it is the most difficult book I’ve read in a long time (excluding Tale of Genji!) I think you might like it, but I’m not sure – I’d love to know!

  4. Jules says:

    This sounds like an interesting read, and I like flowery passages but by your description and review of the book I’m surprised it’s considered a YA book. Either way, I may have to investigate it further. I can see having the characters or some of them described by number rather than a name would be hard to keep track of, but going to try it out anyways.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jules, Thank you for commenting on my blog for the first time. I hope that you enjoy it if you decide to give it a try.

  5. Sandy says:

    I think I might have a slight form of ADHD because I do have trouble with books that require a great deal of concentration. So many distractions! I do trust James though, and he has pretty good instincts…that would be the only reason I would give this one a try.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I can see why cbjames loved this book and I don’t mind complex books, but the negatives just kept adding up for me with this one. I’d be interested to know what you’d make of this one though. I hope you decide to pick it up one day.

  6. Aarti says:

    I’ve heard really lukewarm reviews on this one. It sounds like a really great premise without great execution. That’s always disappointing!

    1. Jackie says:

      Aarti, I think the premise is fantastic, but I think the book is just to clever for its own good. Some people will love it, but I think they will be in the minority.

  7. cbjames says:

    I’m wondering if I should thank you for this link. ;-) It’s not an easy book, by any means, but I’ll stand by my review to the finish. I think everything you’ve said about it is true, but I list all of those things as a plus. He is emotionally distant from the other characters, but how could he be otherwise given that he is a subject in their experiment and their slave? He’s telling the story and he doesn’t know what is really going on himself. This can’t help but leave the reader in the dark as well. I view confusion as part of reading, so that’s okay with me. That may be one reason why I enjoy hard-boiled detective novels and cold war spy thrillers–you never know what’s really going on in those until the end, sometimes not even then. I liked the “flowery language” in Octavian Nothing, myself. It’s true to the period and to the character. I think that’s everything you didn’t like about it, yes.

    A big reason why I liked Octavian Nothing as much as I did is that it shed light on so many parts of American history that we try to brush under the carpet. The second volume does even more of this. I found it a very entertaining way to learn some history, one of the few pieces of historical fiction I’ve enjoyed.

    I do agree that it’s an advanced book, not for average or low readers certainly not younger ones. I’ve yet to see any of my middle school students reading it on their own, though I do think many of the higher level readers would like it.

    While I loved Octavian Nothing, I can see that it’s a love/hate book.

    1. Jackie says:

      cbjames, I agree with you that the premise is fantastic – this is a period in American history that I haven’t read about before.

      I think my main problem was that I didn’t connect with Octavian. He was emotionally distant from the other characters, but also from the reader. I really should have cared about what happened to him, but the combination of confusion and flowery language meant that I was too busy working out what was happening to form any emotional attachment to him.

      I can see why you and others would love it, but I’m afraid it wasn’t for me.

      Don’t worry – I’ll still be willing to try your recommendations and I’m sure it won’t be long before I’m linking to you again!

  8. I have this book and I will get around to reading it eventually. I hate when I have a hard time understanding who’s who in a book. I’ll need to give it a chance though.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jennifer, I am especially bad at remembering who everyone is in a book, so I’m sure that others won’t have the same problem as me. I hope that you enjoy it more than I did.

  9. Jeanne says:

    I read this book because I loved the author’s previous YA novel, Feed. While I don’t find either novel hard to read, I was disappointed to find none of the satiric and playful aspects of Feed in Octavian Nothing. It seemed preachy to me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jeanne, I haven’t heard of Feed, but if you enjoyed it and didn’t like this one then it sounds like I should give it a try. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  10. I fell in love with M.T. Anderson when I read Whales on Stilts! and laughed my proverbial behind off. This one made me weep, but I loved it just as much. (Strangely, I couldn’t get into Feed, though I love dystopian SF! I’ll have to try it again some day.) I have not yet read the second one but it is waiting for me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Maggi, It sounds as though people love Feed or Octavian, but not both. I love dystopian fiction, so a, keen to try Feed now. I haven’t heard of Whales on Stilts, but I enjoy a good laugh, so I’ll watch out for it.

  11. mee says:

    Out of curiosity, what difficult subjects are tackled in the book? The plot seems confusing even by reading your summary alone.

    1. Jackie says:

      mee, It could be considered a spolier, as it isn’t revealed until quite far in the book, but it is revealed that Octavian is a slave. Sorry to be confusing, but I didn’t want to give things away in my reveiw.

  12. I’ve never understood why this was targeted for a young adult audience. I just don’t really see it. I do think I’d enjoy it now, but not back when I was a teen.

    1. Jackie says:

      A Bookshelf Monstrosity, There is no way I’d have enjoyed this as a teen, but then I didn’t enjoy it as an adult, so I’m probably not a good judge!

  13. softdrink says:

    I didn’t like this one at all. It was perfectly obvious to me that he was a slave, so if that was supposed to be a mystery, it wasn’t. And the language…ack, don’t get me started! It never rang true, and it was hard to read. I have no plans to ever read the sequels.

    1. Jackie says:

      softdrink, it is good to know I’m not alone in my opinion! I’m sure the slavery is supposed to be a mystery, but I worked it out too. I won’t be reading the sequels either!

      1. Tom says:

        The real mystery is whether or not its about the sons of Liberty which isn’t revealed till page 324. The only hints were Boston and meeting under the oak tree.

  14. Jenny says:

    I’ve been mildly wanting to read this for a few years, and I don’t necessarily mind working for a reading experience, if it’s, you know, fun work. I hated Beloved, so if this one’s like that, it’s definitely not for me!

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenny, I have an appreciation for Beloved, which has grown on reflection, but I hated reading Beloved too. Perhaps I’ll grow to appreciate this too, but I’m not sure.

  15. Beth F says:

    Thank you, thank you for this review and to all the commenters. I’ve had this on my MP3 player for a while because I had heard such good things about it. For some reason, I always pass it by when I go to pick my next listen. I think I’ll just let it sit some more. I like literary fiction, but not confusion.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I think this book would be very hard to listen to – there is no way I could have worked it all out without re-reading sections. I think avoiding it on your MP3 player is a very good idea!

  16. Stujallen says:

    not come across this book before ,very interesting by sound of it is the a flavour of magic realism about it jackie ?

    1. Jackie says:

      Stujallen, I don’t think I’d describe it as magical realism. All the events that occur are realistic, it is just that the narrative is confusing and difficult to follow at times.

  17. Suey says:

    I loved this book. I’ve read Beloved too and it was okay, but hard, like you said. I didn’t think Octavian was that hard. I have the sequel but haven’t fit it in yet. I hope to soon. I’m sure about whether teenagers would find it hard… some would probably, but I think others would love it too.

    1. Jackie says:

      Suey, I think this book is easier to understand than Beloved, but not much. I’ll keep an eye out for your review of the sequel – I hope you enjoy it.

  18. Pam says:

    I really liked this book. I do agree with the problems you had with it. The numbers and language but I loved the premise and Octavian!

    1. Jackie says:

      Pam, It is great that you were able to find more to like than I did. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the series.

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