Rating scale: 5=Loved it, 4=Liked it, 3=Ok, 2=Disappointed, 1=Hated it. I look for well developed characters, compelling stories.
While this book doesn’t really line up with my own spiritual beliefs, it does present a very interesting version of hell beyond the stereotyped Dante’s Inferno that much of the western Christian cultures have bought into. The first impression of a strange but not especially menacing existence (that is supposed to be only temporary anyway) initially inspires a sense of tentative relief. Then as the magnitude of the assigned task (finding a specific book among billions of books in a library of infinite dimensions) becomes increasingly evident, the reality of hell begins to assert itself. What temporary can mean in relation to eternity is suddenly daunting. Hopelessness, lack of a true faith to believe in, the absence of behavioral boundaries or consequences, and the lack of diversity among the residents may be a reflection of the type of lives many have lived on earth when our naïve thoughts of our own immortality fool us into careless lives. Do we create our own hells, underestimating the effect on our souls of living for the comfortable and the familiar instead of embracing more diverse possibilities of experience and acquaintance?
Beginning with a fairly light tone with humorous episodes, the mood subtly darkens as the story-teller relates his own increasing need to find an escape. Eventually he, and we with him, realize the full impact of his situation. Regardless of your belief or lack of belief in a hellish after-life, this book will challenge your viewpoints, and hopefully challenge your earthly behavior in the reflected image of what this literary hell looks like. Now I wonder what Peck's image of heaven looks like. I'll bet that's a mind bender too.
At one point of this story, the protagonist is advised “nothing is as it seems”. That is a vast understatement in this tangled web of deceit, double-dealing and revenge. As with my prior outing with Goddard, I must work at not giving away any of the plot as spoilers would be difficult to avoid. Suffice it to say that there are few truly good people involved, and they are put upon badly by the self-serving villains whose bad deeds flow into and escalate over six decades, erupting when a young history researcher is given a commission to look into a memoir found in an old villa. The narrative is liberally dotted with familiar names from Edwardian parliamentary politics, and I did have to pay attention to keep up with political issues that I had only a passing familiarity with.
I liked this story. It’s not a thriller but it is a mystery, very complex. It’s constructed like a puzzle, and Goddard gives us the pieces in a manner that we can work it out along with and sometimes ahead of the other players. The characters are well thought out and feel real to me. The history researcher at the center of the story was flawed, and proved himself slightly unscrupulous or at least pretty gullible at one point, but pulls himself together before it’s all over. The resolution was handled just right, leaving a question mark with one character in the final moments. I hope that the title of the book hints at how he will answer that question.
This jolly little caper was recommended to me based on my favorable review of “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”. While I did enjoy that lovely book very much, this selection resembles it only in the premise of an impromptu journey by a geriatric gentleman. This story could be the result of Carl Hiaasen blending Harold Fry with Forrest Gump and adding his own patented lunacy to the mix. There are two storylines at work: the current day journey of Allan Karlssen and the entourage he accumulates while trying to evade a biker gang and the police, and the historical journey of his very eventful Gump-like life that collides with every major global event from 1920 to the fall of the Soviet Union.
I found the current day story line the more entertaining of the two. Readers of Hiaasen’s books will enjoy the very dry, dark humor and root for the inevitable come-uppance dealt by karma as our merry band of fugitives dodge every peril, encouraged by Allan’s optimistic belief that “it is what it is, and what will be will be.” The historical sections were very Gumpish (as noted by many other reviewers), but better because through Allan’s stubbornly apolitical viewpoint, no country or political party escapes a dark satirical skewering. My only complaint was how revisiting history slowed down the more entertaining escape story. Still, it is only a small complaint, because there comes a scene near the end when all those previous historical encounters are bundled together to great hilarity at one person’s expense.
For those who enjoyed Harold Fry for the sweet, gentle tone and ultimately life redeeming message, you may not respond well to the darkness in this story if you are hoping for a repeat. Hiaasen’s fans will have to adjust to a very British reader and a more dry delivery than that author employs. But if those adjustments can be made, if you can just hop on board and take the journey with Allan, then you may be very pleased with “what it is, and what will be.”