This may not be a perfect book but it’s an extremely well written one. I really liked it. Bernard Beckett, a New Zealander, is a superb storyteller. The way he constructs his sentences left me in awe. I often re-read certain lines and marvelled at their brilliance. His writing has a lovely, effortless glide to it, like watching a Viennese Waltz with good footwork and beautiful arm movements – but with a high degree of panache that never gets in the way of the story or appears pretentious. I have read several Booker Prize novels – and books that were nominated – but must say that many of these were not a tenth as good as this book. Although ‘August’ does not have the strongest plot, the crispness of the story makes it excel in ways that other novels often lack, particularly when the writing is clunky or overly pompous and prevents the reader’s enjoyment of the story – or indeed leads to misunderstanding its intended meaning.
August tells the story of Tristan and Grace who, following a road accident, find themselves capsized and hanging off a cliff in pitch black darkness. Injured and fearful that they might not survive until daylight before somebody comes to their rescue, they will themselves to remain conscious by telling each other stories about their past. Their relationship isn’t what you call a conventional one. Tristan is a philosopher and Grace is a prostitute. They have known each other for years, having both previously been part of religious orders and then ex-communicated for wilful behaviour. There is an underlying sexual tension to the story. Tristan has fantasized after Grace for several years, from when they first met as teenagers, and now that they have finally reunited properly, as adults, without having to worry about the constraints of religious life. The stories they tell each other makes the writing remarkable in substance. Whilst the novel is labelled a ‘thriller’, in my opinion, it might fit better within the remit of fantasy/mystery. Both characters – who appear to be middle-aged as opposed to elderly – recall life in an unnamed walled city (Rome sprang to my mind when reading it) in a bygone age when life and the state of your soul determined which side of the wall you belonged to. Those with souls enjoyed the privileges of the inside wall depicting civilisation whilst the heathens lived outside the walls of the city and were deemed soulless and uncouth. Both Tristan and Grace had experienced life on both sides of the wall but had the advantage of being well educated – unlike the heathens.
Is ‘August’ an adult novel or a young adult novel? That depends on which online reviews you read. Some say it is ‘young adult’ fiction but this was not immediately obvious to me, compared to other novels I have read that were labelled as adult fiction, only for me to detect elements that would have been better suited to young readers. If ‘August’ is young adult fiction, it certainly is at the older end of the spectrum. I see, however, from reading into Beckett’s background that he is the author of young adult fiction and adult fiction – as well as some plays.
The contrast between current time in which the book is set, with the backdrop of reminisces contained in Tristan and Grace’s flashback stories from a bygone age, admittedly make unusual reading. But at no point did I feel they made the entire story overly bizarre or unbelievable. Perhaps this was down to the succinct writing skills of Beckett (pictured inset). Once again, I must reiterate how impressed I was with his prose and am so glad that I stumbled upon him quite by chance. Based on this singular experience, I wouldn’t hesitate to delve into his other works. He certainly comes with my recommendation so please check him out.
© Declan Henry