Wednesday 25 February 2009

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T Anderson

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M. T Anderson.

Pages - 351

Challenges - 100+, New Authors and Young Adults.

This book is one of those books that basically shocks you right from the beginning. I still haven't made a decision as to whether I like it or not. I am very much on the fence with this one.

The book is about Octavian, a black slave in the 1700s. He has been bought by Mr Gitney and his whole life is seen as an experiment. Mr Gitney runs the College of Lucidity, where using his benefactors money, he and his colleagues, all known by numbers rather than names, carry out lots of different experiments on different creatures. Everything Octavian does, is recorded in books to be used for scientific research, even measuring and weighing his faeces.... His mother, a former princess, also lives in the house and both are treated well to a certain extent. All is well, until their benefactor dies. Octavian's mother upsets a prospective benefactor and they are both continually whipped and left naked in a cold room. When Octavian's mother becomes ill, with small pox, they subject her to really cruel experiments. When she dies, Octavian bursts into find them cutting her up, to see what her insides look like. Octavian decides to run away and then spends a brief time helping the American revolutionaries, before he is recaptured and tortured.

I found this book upsetting in parts. If these poor people were really subjected to tortures like this, their lives must have been full of misery. I could only see that they would be happier dead. I did not realise exactly how badly they were treated. It was disgusting what they put them through. They were treated like lab rats and worse.

I felt like the book was split into two parts. The first part was easier to read than the second.
The language in the first part, I found to be archaic. I understand that the language is fitting for the type of people within the book, but personally I found it long winded. You don't learn much about Octavian to begin with, so you are about a quarter of the way through the book before you realise he is an African slave.

The second part deals with Octavian's life when he runs away and is written in the form of letters from Private Goring to his family, detailing his discovery of Octavian and helping him to settle in the army with the other men. The way the letters were written, annoyed me as they were not in proper English and littered with capital letters. My past teacher experiences found myself continually correcting the grammar.
Here is an example of the style of writing.

'We drill & drill & drill. I long ardently for Activity for my Hands is commissioned to Build & to wet & to warp & to bind.'

I understand that the letters were written by a soldier who has only learnt the basics of writing, so it is fitting for the story. However, I found reading it to be very awkward.

This book is very harsh and upsetting to read, so I would say only read if you have a keen interest in slavery.

It is one of those books that once read, you will never forget. With that the writer has achieved his objective of writing an unforgettable book.

Has anyone else read this book. Leave a comment if you have, as I would be interested to hear other people's opinions of it.


  1. I haven't read it yet, but I plan to. You're definitely not the only one to be on the fence, though. I've seen very mixed reviews.

    (PS: Your blog comments are working again! For the past couple of days I couldn't comment because the word verification wouldn't work.)

  2. I was going to tell you about your comments as well, but nymeth beat me to it! I swear my reading habits seem to be a mirror of yours lately, completely uninentionally. I just checked this book out from the library a few days ago. How weird.

  3. It sounds fascinating but I also think I need to ban myself from reading it for now. I'm not sure my crazy pregnant hormones are up to that one!

  4. I haven't read this one, but my daughter had pretty much the same reaction...couldn't decide whether she liked it or not. I think she ultimately leaned towards the "not liking it," but told me she'd like to read it again to see if her feelings have changed.

  5. I havent read this one, but it sounds strange. I'm surprised it is upsetting, being that its a young adult book.

    I had also been trying to comment at your blog the past few days, like nymeth mentioned above, but the word verification wouldnt load.

  6. I think "Octavian Nothing" is a very important book. I have suggested it to several of my students. Some times the truth makes us uncomfortable, it helps us learn and grow. As for the writing style it is appropriate for the time period. If you read historical material you'll find this to be true.


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