"The Pages" | Reviewed by William Winkler
Go to a used book shop. Find a volume that appears well-worn, well-used, well-loved. Pick it up and turn it over in your hands. Examine the dust jacket, if one still exists. Leaf through the pages, looking for smudges, stains, annotations in the margins. Finally, sample the words on the pages, searching for an impression of the author; who they might be, what the story of their life could share with you. Now imagine if that book had the ability to speak. What story would it tell?
This is the structure of Irish author Hugo Hamilton’s novel, “The Pages.” The used book in question, the narrator of the story, is “Rebellion,” Austrian journalist and author Joseph Roth’s 1924 novel of a soldier who loses a leg in World War I. The copy of the book describing its history was rescued from a Nazi book burning in 1933, hidden during World War II, and passed through family hands to Lena, its current owner. She travels to Germany to search for the location indicated by a hand-drawn map on the inside of the rear cover.
Hamilton weaves together the history of the book’s travels, the life and tragic marriage of its author Roth, and Lena’s adventures in her search for the map’s destinations. He sets the story in contemporary Europe, introducing secondary (but important) characters whose lives were disrupted by the wars in Chechnya.
The novel alternates between narrative viewpoints, sometimes telling its own story, sometimes that of Lena, her husband, and her associates. Hamilton allows Lena’s copy of the book to offer comments on its own existence, its interaction with other books in the library, and its observations of Lena and her travels. Hamilton keeps the story moving, subtly building in details that lead to an unexpected, if not entirely surprising conclusion.
Readers who enjoy unconventional, but not experimental, prose will find “The Pages” a rewarding read.