The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. I: The Pox Party won the national book award and it is easy to tell why in the reading of it. Author M.T. Anderson is quite the story teller. He writes in a gothic, fantastical manner. I don’t think I’ve ever read a gothic novel before and I have to say it put me on edge. I read quickly as the story was quite intense.
These books, the first and its sequel, Traitor to the Nation, are intense when it comes to subject matter. The protagonist in this story is Octavian Nothing, son of an African Princess, but born in America where his mother came when she was thirteen, pregnant and trying to escape a violent past. The story is set in the pre-revolutionary war era during a time in our Nation’s history when blacks were slave-bound. Octavian’s mother is bought by a group of philosophers who comprise the College of Lucidity. They purchased his mother so as to raise Octavian as an experiment – to see if Negroes (language in the book) were similar to whites. They measured his food intake and his body output every day. They taught him history, foreign languages and philosophy to determine his brain power, skills and talents. It’s all very crude but not in a gratuitous way. Honestly, I thought M.T. Anderson did a really good job defining what it would be like to be a slave. It wasn’t pretty. Yes, there were masters who were more kind and considerate to their slaves. However, this book is about the atrocities – NOT the kindnesses.
The two books flow together and I don’t think you can read the first without being massively curious about the contents of the second. In The Pox Party we meet Octavian who has no idea that he is part of a grand experiment but lives out his days learning as much as he can and measuring everything he eliminates from his system. It is more unusual for him to think that other people were not accustomed to living like he did. His mother, the only female at the College of Lucidity gets a grand lot of attention as a result and is beautiful, regal and self respecting. She declines the offers of a British lord and after refusing his advances, she and Octavian both are punished as Negroes of the time would have been punished – by being whipped. Truly, this book is intense. (How many times can I use the word “intense” in one review?)
The first book builds in climax to a Pox Party (where friends and relations are invited to come and be exposed to the small pox in a manner that will hopefully inoculate them from the disease) where Octavian and his mother both fall ill. As a result of this illness, Octavian is pushed towards independent thoughts. Book Two, Traitor to the Nation, takes us to the Revolutionary War wherein Octavian agrees to serve alongside the red coats in fighting the rebels. When he enlists he is offered the name Octavian Negro whereupon Octavian says he’d rather be known as a “nothing” rather than be known by his race. Hence the book titles.
As I mentioned, these two books are intense, spell-binding and riveting. They are pegged as teen reads and I would certainly suggest that the readers be mature enough to handle themes such as race, cruel and unusual punishment, sexual advances (which do not become too graphic but do exist), etc. I have to say that this book had my full and complete attention. It draws you in because M.T. Anderson does such an excellent job writing out his story. I also did something that I never do upon completing a book – I intentionally looked up other book reviews before writing this one. The general consensus seems to be that this book is deep, head-y and deals with some pretty mature-to-harsh themes but it shouldn’t be avoided. Anderson writes skillfully and captivates his audience. He also forces you to think about and deal with the subjects he presents you with. In some ways, you almost feel powerless to skim and absolutely powerless to ignore the points he is trying to make. Both of these books are very well done. If you choose to pick them up, just be aware of the fact that you’ll need to sacrifice the rest of your day because these are books you are not going to want to put down! Furthermore, I don’t believe they are books that you can read simply for the sake of reading or purely for entertainment. These are books that demands some thought and it is something that any reader would no doubt linger over for some time.
Carrie comes by her book obsession honestly, having descended from a long line of bibliophiles. She blogs about books regularly at Reading to Know.