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August by Bernard Beckett
Published by Text
Review published in Fiction Focus: New Titles for Teenagers 25 (2) 2011, pp. 52-53
and online at CMIS
I reviewed August for CMIS (review to come), and felt uncomfortable because I wrote a less than glowing review about a highly publicised new book. The author’s last book had won awards!
I was underwhelmed by the story, and put off by the rehashing of (I thought) overused and boring stereotypes. Women as the spawn of the devil, that sort of thing…
And I found the characters one dimensional.
So, vindication arrived in the form of a review by Lachlan Jobbins in March’s Bookseller and Publisher (p31).
Lachlan wrote that ‘August has barely any plot and almost no characterisation… Its characters are little more than ciphers for ideas, or pawns to move the story along…. a contrived work of speculative fiction.’ !!
I don’t like every book I read, but reviewing it in a constructive way is a good challenge. But I’m more looking forward to the next book I’m reviewing, Meg Mundell’s Black Glass. It’s action packed and well written speculative fiction. August has always been a nowhere kind of month…
Dystopia. Age 15+. Set in a dystopian world, featuring religion, philosophy, bigotry, the idea of love, and an upturned car, August ends as it began with two strangers ‘floating, tumbling together in a machine not made for tumbling, weightless and free.’
Tristan has crashed a stolen car. He and his passenger fall down the cliff. Many characters have died throughout literary history, but few have died leaving such little empathy in readers’ hearts. Their fate is suspended in the last paragraph, but I found myself pleased to be free of them.
The cover blurb raises expectations of a dramatic play-like text: two injured protagonists trapped in an upturned car. The relationship dynamic could have been compelling.
The story unfolds in alternating chapters in third-person-limited point of view, covering both characters’ stories. This restricted viewpoint limits the reader’s ability to develop empathy because their viewpoint is not reflected by other characters. August has been described as complex, as its core philosophical discussion is about the nature of free will and this involves some surprising but foreshadowed twists.
Set in the City of God, with charismatic priests who have no compassion for outsiders, August may provoke discussion in Religion and History classes when studying the change place of women in society. Readers may also be alienated by tired stereotypes. Tristan’s first encounter with a girl comes in a situation controlled by the rector. She is naked and he is forced to look.
Even mothers were not permitted to visit. Augustine himself had taught that woman was temptation, the devil’s lever.
From this point Tristan can think of no-one except the girl he will eventually come to know as Grace. She in turn imagines him as her angel. Grace’s poverty forces her into prostitution, a situation in which the Church is complicit. Setup is vital, because Tristan could not have picked her up in a stolen car if she was not working on the streets.
Tristan and Grace do not quite intersect in each other’s lives for some time, each elevating the other on a pedestal.
‘There was never a time I stopped loving you.’
‘Not me,’ Grace countered. ‘Your idea of me.’
The idea of each other is all they ever have, because once they finally meet, Tristan exercises his free will with little thought for Grace having the same rights.