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by John Boyne

Pub Date: March 6th, 2007
ISBN: 0-312-35480-0
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Boyne (Crippen, 2006, etc.) offers a historical fantasy about a 256-year-old man.

Matthieu Zéla is a fortunate man. He has discovered the secret of perpetual middle age, as Oscar Levant said of Zsa Zsa Gabor. Though never a father himself, he has lived through nine generations of nephews, each of whom, after fathering a son, has died in his 20s; Matthieu has been given their unused years. It’s a silly idea, but it does allow Boyne to dip into history at will. Matthieu was born in Paris in 1743. After his stepfather murdered his mother and was executed, 15-year-old Matthieu left for England with his five-year-old half-brother Tomas. On the cross-Channel boat, he met 19-year-old Dominique, also fleeing France; the three became a family. Boyne moves back and forth among many time periods. There is Matthieu’s coming-of-age year, 1760, and there is his present, 1999. In between, Boyne inserts several pieces of history, ranging from the 1793 Paris Terror to the Hollywood blacklist of the McCarthy period. The constant is narrator Matthieu, who makes money and connections with improbable ease, whether working for the pope in Rome as an arts administrator in 1847 or falling into a role as TV producer in 1940s Hollywood. Unfortunately, Boyne has no feeling for the past, and Matthieu’s voice is bland, so that even the guillotining of his first nephew counts for little; like the many other violent incidents, it is told with a practiced glibness. Boyne does a little better with Matthieu’s origins (Dominique’s death provides a rare moment of genuine excitement) and the present, in which Matthieu is trying to save his drug-addicted nephew, the star of a BBC soap, from yet another early grave. It’s a tough assignment, but Matthieu pulls it off; once said nephew is set for a long life, Matthieu can settle into old age.

A gimmick in search of a plot, and far duller than it should have been, given the material.