View From The Glen

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday Reads: The Eight

My summer reading list kicked off with The Eight by Katherine Neville. As I mentioned last week, I have read it before, and it's one of those books that surprises you the first time you read it, and so subsequently, the reading experience can never be as good. (Atonement springs immediately to mind, as do any number of mysteries where the ending is something you ddin't see coming.)

Having said all that, later readings of The Eight did impress me with other aspects. I think this was my fourth read of it over two decades, and each time different nuances of the novel made themselves felt. This time around, it was mostly the relationship between the 18th century nun, Mireille and the modern day Cat, and how their resepctive worlds unfolded as they chase (wittingly or not) the legendary pieces of the Montglane Chess Service  that once belonged to Charlemagne.

Because I now know the underlying secret of the book, I found focusing on character more rewarding, though the twists and turns of the plot were still of interest, particularly how Neville weaves all those threads into one, giving us so many clues we don't even know we have until they all come together.

A couple of things imprinted themselves on me this read. The first is that the surprise of the ending is not really a surprise at all. Oh, it was to me twenty years ago, but to a more mature reader, the ending is almost obvious, and I don't think I'd like the book as much if I read it for the first time today.

(It's the funny thing about books - our reviews so often depend on where we are in life, and how we remember them. Try reading any beloved children's book and see what I mean. It's difficult to be obective because the memory of the book is so powerful.)

Secondly, much as I enjoy history, I found the large cast of historical figures annoying even as they intrigued me. Part of what I loved about the book years ago was that I felt I had touched upon understanding some of the great figures of our past: Wordsworth and Coleridge, Napoleon and Catherine the Great, Robespierre and Benedict Arnold,Voltaire and Newton, Bach and Rousseau and Charelmagne....and if this list sounds long it's because it is and this time, I found my credibility stretched, my  patience thin. Some of the characters were one dimensional, and I wanted to know more about them (the fictional Solarin for example); many were just cameos- sort of a historical name dropping.

At the same time, I was impressed with how Neville wove other historical figures into the plot. The Bishop of Autun, for example: Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. His rise to power, influence during the French revolution, relationship with the young Napoleon, years in the US, years in Britain, and marriage to Catherine Grand are all detailed in The Eight with plausible explanations for his role in the plot of the novel.

I still enjoyed it. The twisting narrative, the chess game and the endlessly fascinating Montglane Chess set, the secret codes and mathematical equations all continued to compel me to read and the plot still held together for me. It's a quest, a conspiracy theory, and a legend all rolled into one.

1 comment:

Finola said...

Your write-up makes me want to start reading this now. I will definitely add it to my reading list too. And I just loved Atonement - one of my favourites.