Book Review: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation by M.T. Anderson

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“For reading, once begun, quickly becomes home and circle and court and family; and indeed, without narrative, I felt exiled from my own country. By the transport of books, that which is most foreign becomes one’s familiar walks and avenues; while that which is most familiar is removed to delightful strangeness; and unmoving, one travels infinite causeways; immobile and thus unfettered.”

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is set right at the start of the American Revolution, told through journal entries of Octavian, a young African boy brought up by philosophical society to have a classical education. What Octavian learns, however, is that his life is one big experiment.

This is a book that has been recommended quite a lot by John Green and if it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t have found it. I’m really glad I did though. I love historical novels but European history is more my area of interest than American history. I really liked it though. The language is a bit hard to get into at first but you get used to it. The back cover says that this book is for ages 14 and up and I agree with that. This really didn’t read like a Young Adult novel at a lot of times and while it doesn’t ever get really graphic, descriptions of violence and torture can get pretty intense. There’s also some sexuality as well.

It’s a slave narrative novel but from a different and unique perspective. Octavian is brought up and educated like a white man, he and his mother are given preferential treatment and are acknowledged to be a princess and prince from Africa. And yet they are still, fundamentally, slaves and it’s in the undertone of all interactions with the white men, until it later on becomes overt. This novel is fiction but what Octavian experiences are based on real stories, as Anderson explains in the notes. 

Anderson does an amazing job of weaving a story out of historical events and making his characters come to life. He also brings to light important facets of white supremacy and the problematic way that Europeans viewed the world and other human beings. I’ll definitely be picking up the second book soon. 

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