Friday, August 19, 2011

Books I Have Been Reading: Wilbur Smith's "River God"

As I've said here, kind friends have been keeping me so supplied with books I haven't bought any in months. I seem to remember reading one of his Zimbabwe books when I was a kid, but it's a vague memory.

I picked up River God with some hesitation, but it was the perfect escapist novel and a very good follow-up to the Bartimeaus books. I had expected it to be more serious reading that would help me learn more about Egyptian history, but really, it's just a fantasy novel set in ancient Egypt.

When I was about halfway through the book, I flipped over and read the afterword that claimed this was non-fiction, that this was a translation of sorts of ancient Egyptian scrolls. That seemed fantastical, and even with that, I supposed that much of what the narrator, Taita, chooses to tell us is grossly exaggerated or plain fiction. And apparently, the claim that these are memoirs isn't true. (Why the author should chose to willfully lie to readers is, of course, a pertinent question.)

Accuracy aside, this was a fun read. Most entertaining of all is the character of Taita himself. Flamboyant, somewhat narcissistic, prone to exaggeration, but with the art of telling an interesting story, Taita reminded me a little of the friend who'd lent me the book, and made my reading even more entertaining.

It's an interesting exercise in the flawed narrator. Taita is the only lens through which we view a world unlike our own in many ways. With my meager knowledge of history, I had little way of knowing how much of what he describes seems likely. But it's obvious he's exaggerating his own talents as well as those of the people he loves (notably the heroine, who becomes the queen). He also holds reprehensible views that the modern reader couldn't agree with, on slavery, for instance (an economic necessity, of course).

The book started to pall for me towards the end, partly because Taita's relentless exaggeration and lyrical prose began to bore (how many descriptions of his beautiful queen can you endure?). So I'm not quite sure I'm going to go for the whole series. But this was a great way to spend a weekend afternoon (or two).

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