The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing

April 6, 2009
By Rachael Pintaric BRONZE, Canfield, Ohio
Rachael Pintaric BRONZE, Canfield, Ohio
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A great historical fiction novel, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson provides deep insight of a young African slave living in Boston during the Revolutionary time period. In reviewing the plot, characterization, setting, and style, aside from some minor setbacks, Anderson could be considered to have mastered the creation of a very intruiging and well-written story.
Although the initial idea behind the plot of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is interesting and twisted, it is carried through in a rather dry fashion at times. M.T. Anderson reveals the truth behind the College's experiments too early in the story, ruining any sense of suspense. As the plot is developed, the story seems to drag on with no interesting events at all, until the so-called pox party. Anderson's graphic details of the suffering and tragic events cause a huge turning point in the plot, luring the reader back in to the story with extreme curiosity. From then on, the plot is much more fast-paced and engaging.

The main characters are very believable. Anderson portrays Octavian as a quiet, intellectual young African boy who is extremely reserved and observant, which fits his situation perfectly. Since he was born into the ownership of Mr. Gitney and the College of Lucidity, Octavian's passive personality as a young child was basically modeled by his professors and observers, until he finally lashes on later on in his life when he discovers his mother's horrifying death which any reader could relate to if he or she were under the same circumstance. As the new administrator of the college, Anderson creates Mr. Sharpe to be stereotypical tyrannical slave owner just as anyone would imagine with his sinister ways and love for handing out cruel punishments left and right. On the complete other end of the spectrum, Dr. Trefusis's character is crafted to be the sympathetic “good guy,” always helping Octavian to understand life and eventually risk his entire life just to grant him his freedom.

Taking place in historic Boston during the Revolutionary time period, the setting of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing lends much relevance to the entire story. In fact, the setting plays a huge role in the plot as well. Anderson is constantly making references to infamous historical events that occurred during this time period, such as the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. Not only did this make a tremendous impact on the plot, but it made the setting come alive, tying slavery and a crucial time in American history together.

The only true setback to this novel is M.T. Anderson's style. Many of the sentences are aggravatingly lengthy and too detail-ridden, taking away from the overall effect of the story itself. The vocabulary choice is extremely advanced and the “Old World” style is miserably boring. It is almost as if Anderson is competing in a game of Scrabble with all of the riduculous words that are used, causing one to feel as if he or she is reading a thesaurus. This essentially takes away from the voice of Octavian especially, because the wording is too confusing for the reader to connect with him. However, the sudden change of perspective from Octavian's narration to Private Goring's letters is rather creative and refreshing after stumbling through the entire beginning of the story.

Aside from some flaws such as phrasing and a sometimes slow-moving plot, M.T. Anderson has crafted a truly commendable historical novel. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is quite an interesting read and very likely the start of a series that holds great potential.

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