Most historical fiction books for young people take as their object to show a Typical Person with a Typical Problem in a particular era; and most historical fiction for young people reflects a sort of bland consensus view of history, something that is acceptable to teach in schools.Octavian Nothing is not most historical fiction.
Picking up where the first book left off, Octavian — a slave raised in luxury with a first-rate education as part of an experiment — enlists with the Royal Ethiopian Regiment, which has promised to free any Rebel-owned slaves that join up. There he encounters war, friendship, heartbreak, betrayal, the difficulty of fitting in when he fits in nowhere. He has spent his childhood learning Latin and violin fugues, where his comrades have spent theirs on plantations. Octavian’s cultural heritage is extremely complex. He has been given music and religion – but has been deprived of the music and religion of his own people. The novel refuses to make an easy calculation of what he has gained and lost.
We see Octavian’s growing maturity as he acquires wisdom — and also cynicism. Is selfishness at the core of human nature, human existence? Can success — or survival — only be achieved at the expense of others? And if so, how do we reconcile ourselves with that?
The issue of historical memory is one I’ve been deeply interested in for some years now. There is probably no nation on earth that has never, somewhere in its history, committed war crimes or genocide, that has no scars on its conscience. It’s easy to say, it’s history, it’s in the past. It’s too easy; the past is never past. Octavian Nothing is willing to confront that, to ask hard questions. To refuse to provide easy answers to them. It asks how we can reconcile ourselves with our past — with our present — and says, maybe we don’t. Maybe we can’t.
What a profoundly troubling and beautiful piece of work.
Octavian Nothing II will be published in October.