This is the first time I’ve picked up a Stephen Fry novel, and it was an enjoyable, if slightly uneven, experience. Thumbing through the opening pages, I noticed that this book was first published in 1996, which begins to make sense when considering some of the faultlines running through this alternate history offering.
Michael Young is convinced his brilliant history thesis will win him a doctorate, a pleasant academic post, a venerable academic publisher and his beloved girlfriend Jane. A historian should know better than to imagine that he can predict the future.
Leo Zuckerman is an ageing physicist obsessed with the darkest period in human history, utterly driven by his fanatical hatred of one man. A lover’s childish revenge and the breaking of a rotten clasp cause the two men to meet in a blizzard of swirling pages. Pages of history. When they come together nothing – past, present or future – will ever be the same again.
And there you have the blurb. The book contains an intriguing premise – two men decide, for very different reasons, to tamper with history by ensuring the one man responsible for the rise of Nazi Germany is never born. However, the result isn’t what they bargained for… As a former history student, I thoroughly enjoyed Fry’s thorough approach to the historical content and had no problem with the leisurely start. And the conclusion that Fry comes to is certainly thought provoking – I’ve been thinking a lot about the book since I put it down.
Fry successfully establishes Michael’s character as a wunderkind bedevilled with increasing insecurities as his peers are rapidly catching up, if not overhauling his precocious giftedness. Inevitably, given the sub-genre, the narrative timeline is speckled with flashbacks which are ably handled. And it goes without saying that the writing is excellent – actually, that shouldn’t go without saying. Excellent writing should always be acknowledged and I’d be selling Fry short if I just gave a nod in that direction because we all know that the man has an intellect the size of Greece’s overdraft.
So far, so good. The protagonist has been well established, with plenty of depth. We have met with Leo and there’s been a couple of interesting plot twists – and then the novel prose comes to abrupt end and I was confronted with a film script. The action immediately speeded up as I witnessed a major emotional confrontation spool through in this script mode – feeling completely unconnected to the characters. Later in the novel, there is another, longer film script interlude, which also had the effect of alienating me from the action – a real shame as I’d really enjoyed the book up to this point.
I am aware that my extreme aversion to this literary device is subjective – probably connected to the fact that books are my first and major love, while films are okay, I suppose…. However, I did find the film script sections really spoilt the book for me. Having said that, up to the point it all went Courier I found the depiction of the alternate world engrossing and chilling in equal measure. Fry is good at writing minor characters memorably and the flashes of humour helped alleviate what could have been a grim read, given the subject matter.
All in all, it’s an interesting book with a fascinating premise and if you enjoy alternate histories, I highly recommend it. Who knows – you may even enjoy the scripted sections…