Kurtis De’ath, the narrator of Boyd’s sprawling debut historical novel, is a “reflecting man” figure in the sense that through his remarkable and convoluted life he finds himself encountering virtually all of the notable figures of the first half of the 20th century. De’ath is an eloquent and outspoken narrator (and fond enough of his own exploits, a la George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman), relating his adventures as a secret advisor to Adolf Hitler, a globe-trotting newspaper reporter (who breaks the news that England’s King Edward VIII is so deeply enamored of American divorcee Wallis Simpson that he might abdicate in order to marry her), and a somewhat reluctant MI5 agent for the British government. De’ath is the reader’s narrative proxy as he watches the key events unfold in Hitler’s rise to power, and Boyd’s skill at weaving exposition into his narrative is so great that the large and complicated plot moves forward very smoothly. Watching 20th century history unfold through the unmistakable viewpoint of Kurtis De’ath would be a treat for any lover of well-done historical fiction. Promised sequels are eagerly anticipated.
4.0 out of 5 stars
Clever and well written jaunt through modern history
Dense and yet compelling, Boyd's prose and detail in The Reflecting man makes for a read that is witty and paced just right as it weaves through modern history in a way that I have not seen since Dorothy Dunnett conquered the events of the late Middle Ages. Styles very different from the late and lamented Dunnett, but the feel of being taken for an ultimate ride through events that fascinate and prove gripping even when known are the same.
The Reflecting Man is a novel that came out of nowhere to take over my reading. First and foremost it is a first person voice novel and a lot of the appeal comes from Kurtis De'ath's commonsense approach to the craziness that starts taking over the world after the crash of 1929, culminating of course in the "abnormal" as normal that life in the Third Reich soon becomes.
Here is Kurtis ruminating on how the "superman/subhuman" ideas so much popularized from Nietzsche on and leading to the forced euthanasia and sterilization policies of the 3rd Reich from 1934 on are total bunk, while remembering his first "boss", a low IQ but otherwise perceptive and cheerful cousin of the rich Gagnon's who foster Kurtis from age 12 on.
"Seems to me, however, that folks like Cinnamon Jim fit right in neatly if you can find that misshaped hole for the misshaped peg like Arthur did for him in our store. Sure, he ruined about four hundred dollars worth of toffee with his handprints but, if you try hard enough to help someone, you can eventually find a solution.The thing is, you have to want to try, right? Doesn't sound like Herr Nietzsche feels it’s worth the effort in the first place, so more fool him. I'm a Maritimer; we use common sense as our guide because logic often involves too many details and generally screws things up."
Following the usual memoir structure after the first introductory page that hooked me on the book both by its style and by the implied promises, The Reflecting Man presents Kurtis' life from his parents' deaths in 1922 when at age 12 he gets to live within Canadian chocolate maker Arthur Gagnon's household and become foster brother to his 12 year old son Whitten.
"I have confessed my predilection for striking first when I was challenged, mocked, derided, baited, teased, slighted, hairy-eyeballed…the list of offenses was, to be sure, much less nuanced in my twelve-year-old understanding than I am presenting here. My boy’s brain reacted on impulse without much, if any, discretion. Terry Corby received the boot for calling me “Kurtis-s-s-s-s-s,” like a snake might say it. Dwayne and Blayne Kinson were each well and truly hoofed in their dangling participles, although I had to chase Blayne half a mile before I got him. If I recall correctly, they were three years older than I was and made cracks about Death being a half-pint. I stuck a fist into Daryl Horne's nose for declaring that I was the thief who ate his sardine sandwich during school lunch break. It couldn’t have been me because I despised (and still do) the smell and taste of sardines. I’d rather eat a dead cat. Besides, once I’d discovered that it was a sardine sandwich I chucked it in the bushes."
The novel also offers ample detours in the past of the Gagnon family and later in the history of Canada, both in its Anglophone and Francophone versions - born a catholic, Kurtis is raised as a Baptist by the Gagnons, though later he becomes best friends with a French Canadian young Jesuit and gets to teach German at the Jesuit college of Montreal who at the time was "the" place for educating the Francophone elite of Canada - and while at times the book meanders a little, overall I quite enjoyed these side-stories and found out a lot of details about Canadian history.
However, not everything told to us is to be taken at face value - as he warns us from the first page - and by the device of him reading surreptitiously diaries of his friends - we get to see different facets of Kurtis that seem to justify the strong impression he makes on various powerful and not so powerful people on first sight...
Of course the main promise of the book is Kurtis' association with Adolf Hitler and when we get there and more generally to Kurtis' arrival in Germany in June 1933 and his sort of co-optation in the new Chancellor's inner circle - seen as a mascot by some, as a charlatan by others, but ultimately all tying in with Hitler's "mystical" beliefs in destiny - the novel truly takes flight and becomes impossible to put down.
With an ending at a reasonable "to be continued" point, but strongly wishing for more despite its 700+ page bulk, The Reflecting Man vaulted to my top 10 books of the year and the announced sequel - sadly seems to be 2015 only - became a huge asap.
Highly, highly recommended.
Narrator Kurtis De'ath (accent on ‘ath) navigates a host of unusual occupations, rising up through the ranks of the confectionery business, working as a journalist, and even offering advice (and candy) to Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in this detailed, if unconvincing, historical saga set before and during World War II in Canada, America, and Europe. Wealthy, highly moral Arthur Gagnon adopts De'ath as a boy following his parents' demise and gives him a job in his candy factory in New Brunswick. The delights of candy making provide scant preparation for the moral challenges of journalism, but prove pragmatically useful in forging connections to top Nazis. Boyd paints a convincing picture of Nazi depravity with his detailed descriptions of Germany under the Third Reich. However, despite entertaining wordplay involving De'ath's name and the odd fact that he is supplying chocolate to top Nazis, readers will find it difficult to become invested in the exploits of Boyd's potentially fascinating protagonist.
In VOLUME TWO, in January of 1936, our loquacious and unreliable narrator, Kurtis De’ath arrives in London on the orders of Adolf Hitler. Kurtis is loaded with secrets, confections, and more than a few mysteries. Closeting his other identities (Herr Death, mysterious confidant of Adolf Hitler, and the Wagner Family’s Shokoladenmann, dispenser of the delightful Bird Bonz), he becomes fellow Maritimer, Lord Beaverbrook’s gossip columnist for the Daily Express and is immediately drawn into the political and social British maelstrom of Abdication and Appeasement. Deftly working his way through the class and clutter of English society as Kurtis Tod, he does his best to keep old friends (Erl Echland, Ulrich Roller, Bella Fromm), make new ones (Tom Driberg, William Joyce, ‘Huge’ Castlerosse), confound his enemies (Joseph Ball, Maxwell Knight, Josef Goebbels), and to derive some sense out of it all as the world edges even closer to a second Great War. And, when things get a little nasty, it may be that Kurtis De’ath is just the fellow you want on your side.
Available now for pre-order on Apple iBookstore and Kindle (digital) and Amazon.com (trade paperback).