“At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.”
Upon seeing the title: the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and having a small inkling of the book being set in colonial times, my mind leapt to the ridiculous plots that are often scoured through the pages of the young adult section: Caesar Octavian runs into Bill & Ted in the midst of their excellent adventure and travels forward in time to colonial America? False. However, the book really was an unexpected treat.
Octavian Nothing is a wild story about a mild mannered African boy, owned by a man named Josiah Gitney, a philosopher instructor of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The college is headquarters to all sorts of pseudo-scientific experiments (I know you’re still on the thread of Young Adult fiction here, so what’s probably going through your mind is like a colonial version of Bill Nye the science guy where Bill wears wigs and heels…sorry) such as Octavian weighing his excrement, and comparing it with his consumption of food; all aimed at unearthing the differences between blacks and whites. Octavian and his mother, despite being in this horrific environment, are actually treated very well. But why?
Early on in the book the reader is introduced to a mysterious door (in classic Narnian fashion) that Octavian is strictly forbidden access to, but his curiosity soon gets the better of him (just like all young boys). Octavian’s ignorance of his petrifying situation soon melts away as the secrets behind the door are revealed… he begins to understand that he is indeed a slave and is possibly at the hands of a corrupt organization that has dressed him in silks, and has given him a classical education to serve a very specific agenda. The tale is grounded in this spectacular revelation, and how young Octavian not only deals with it emotionally, but also upon his choices that are birthed from the pain of his enslavement, and the cruelty of the bizarre experiments.
M.T. Anderson’s dense writing in this novel gives you the sensation of chewing a savory steak dinner. His voice and diction are beyond rich and complex, while effectively giving the reader the feeling of being enveloped in the thick of 1770’s America. After reading the book, I’m still confused at why it is classified as young adult fiction. The vocabulary is advanced and there are dark scenes throughout the novel peppered with 3 instances of completely unneeded sexuality. However, Octavian Nothing would be a powerful novel for young adults to read because it breeds an absolute hatred for the institution of slavery. And even though Octavian Nothing is not about a Roman Emperor traveling through time with two high school slackers, its powerful commentary on injustice, slavery, and nationalism was a worth-while read for me and I believe for readers of a younger generation.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is an intriguing read, but a little bit difficult to struggle through at times. However, hang in there, the last 50 pages made M.T. Anderson’s first crack at historical fiction a beautiful masterpiece… the beginning of a story that I will undoubtedly finish in its sequel.
4th shelf out of 5.