This blog contains book reviews, comments on interesting things and a smattering of self promotion. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Book Review: Stephen Fry, 'Making History'

Before I begin, I'd like to point out that I've talked before about celebrity novelists. More specifically, I've talked about Jordan, and how stamping her name on a few ghost written rags does not give her the right to call herself a writer. I know that I shouldn't judge books I've never read, but I'd still rather break that rule than discover great works of literature are floating around Waterstones with Jordan's name on them. Besides, she still hasn't chosen to defend herself by accepting my challenge to a short story competition.

Stephen Fry is a completely different case. Firstly, because he has a discernible talent other than finding new ways to whore himself to the tabloids, and secondly (and more importantly) because as far as I am aware, he does write his own books. This leaves just one more thing to note before we embark on the review proper, and that is that way back in 1996, Fry predicted the iPad, right down to the use of little symbols to represent the different apps.

Now onto the review.

If you were given the power to alter history, what would you do? Would you try to stop Hitler? This is one of the most obvious answers to that question, and it forms the central premise of the novel. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which begins with a chance encounter between Micheal 'Puppy' Young, a PhD history student at Cambridge, and physicist, Professor Leo Zuckerman, inventor of a machine which allows the user to see a moment in history, and to send simple objects back in time. The two develop a plot to stop Hitler from having ever been born, and then put this plan into action. In this half of the book, chapters following Young and Zuckerman are alternated with flashbacks detailing the relationship between Hitler's mother and her abusive husband in the early years of Hitler's life, and then showing us episodes from Hitler's time fighting in the First World War. Fry manages to make real, human characters out of both obscure historical figures and of the most hated figure of the twentieth century.

In the book's second half, Micheal finds himself on a drunken night out in Princeton with almost complete memory loss. Over the next few chapters we see him piece together the details of his life in this new version of history, while details of what brought him there return to his memory. Fry again alternates Michael's first person narrative with chapters set in the First World War, although this time in Hitler's absence we watch as one Rudolph Gloder is promoted through the ranks.

Meanwhile, back in Princeton, Michael discovers the world he has created is far from perfect. He might have eliminated Hitler, but he did not eliminate the oppressive conditions Germany was subjected to in the aftermath of the Great War, nor did he eliminate the nationalistic and antisemitic sentiments which they produced. In the world where Michael finds himself, Gloder, a far more efficient and charismatic leader than Hitler, became Fuhrer and subjugated Europe. America has been in a long cold war with Nazi Europe, creating oppressive government of its own. The civil rights movement, and those other movements it spawned, never happened.

Fry knows his form well, and is not afraid to experiment with it's conventions. While most of the chapters set in the present (both as we know it and in the alternate world) are in standard first person narrative, there are a few chapters which Fry presents as film scripts. At first this can come across as confusing, and disconnects the reader from the protagonist somewhat. On the other hand, it allows him to skip through large portions of time in a montage form, while literally sticking to the 'show, don't tell' motto popularised in many creative writing classes. It also serves to emphasis the difference between film heroes and heroes in novels, namely, that characters in films are by necessity men (or women) of action, whereas characters in books are given the opportunity to contemplate their actions.

One criticism of this novel would be Fry's decision to make his protagonist gay halfway through the books second part. In itself this would not be an issue, but there are not enough hints before hand to make the transition seem believable, and those we are given seem forced. This could have been solved by either making Michael gay from the very beginning (if this was the sexuality Fry wanted to give his protagonist), or by giving more hints from the beginning of the book that this might happen. Other than this, Fry's characterization is extremely good, and very believable. Granted, if he were less sinister, Gloder would come across as something of a pantomime villain, being one half Red Dwarf's Ace Rimmer ('What a guy!') and one half Shakespeare's Iago, but he is an enjoyable character to read.

I would recommend Making History to anyone interested in history, whether that be real or alternate. It is a fine reminder that history is often more complex than we think.


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