The Last Hundred Days

Sunday September 4, 2011 in books read 2011 |

Otopeni airport was a two-storey building with plate-glass walls and red-veined marble floors; overstaffed, but with nothing happening …. The airport was a place of perpetual lull, perpetual betweenness, as transitional as the plane we had just left behind. But it’s the transitional places that hold us all the longer and enclose us all the more.

The Last Hundred Days is the debut novel from poet Patrick McGuinness. Set in Romania in 1989, this is a semi-autobiographical account of a young British university lecturer caught in the historic events surrounding Caucescu’s fall. Writing this a week or so after finishing the book, it lingers in my mind with a dreamlike quality; the events depicted almost seem unreal in how they describe a world so different to our own.

cover of The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinnessIn terms of a believable account of Romania in the late 80s, McGuinness cannot be faulted. The opening chapters of the book are brilliant, describing the narrator’s arrival in Bucharest and his slow but irreversible immersion into the new culture. There is a thread through the novel that suggests that the narrator will never be able to leave, best personified by the scene where he abandons his trip home to resolve his dead father’s estate. And there is a gritty sense of atmosphere throughout – regret, unease, almost an excitement at the dangers present – from observations of demolition and rebuild in the Romanian capital to uncomfortable encounters with deep set corruption and ugly police brutality.

However, The Last Hundred Days is, forgive the pun, at least one hundred pages too long. McGuinness struggles with the burden of resolving his overcomplicated plot, which attempts to present aspects of a thriller (more than once the narrator makes reference to James Bond adventures) with some romantic intrigue (unfortunately McGuinness is not skilled are writing believable romantic encounters). But even if this is an uneven ride (and please employ a better proofreader for your next publication), this is a novel well worth a look. But The Last Hundred Days presented me with a poser. Should a novel be this naturalistic and in essence be little more than a dressed up autobiography? Or can a book be just as, or more, effective with a completely fantastic narrative? I’m thinking of The City and the City by China MiĆ©ville, a novel which is essentially a fantasy but nevertheless explores oppression and the absurdity and horror of a police state just as well if not better.

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