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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Pages

by
Hugo Hamilton


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Pages



Title: The Pages
Author: Hugo Hamilton
Genre: Novel
Written: 2021
Length: 261 pages
Availability: The Pages - US
The Pages - UK
The Pages - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : wonderful concept, but too many secondary stories packed in

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 14/7/2021 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian . 21/7/2021 Andrew Motion
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/4/2022 John Williams
The Observer . 1/8/2021 Colm Tóibín
The Spectator A 31/7/2021 Michael Arditti
Sunday Times . 25/7/2021 Andrew Male
Wall St. Journal . 4/2/2022 Anna Mundow


  Review Consensus:

  Enjoy the concept, though rather a lot going on

  From the Reviews:
  • "Although ideas of memory, legacy and repetition -- the indelible imprints of history -- fill The Pages, it moves with a fast and fluid gait. (...) As his various threads entwine, Hamilton sometimes risks confusion or distraction. Mostly he sidesteps them thanks to his sharp, laconic, camera's-eye observation (.....) The novel's overlapping strata enrich its texture but can blur its focus." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Hugo Hamilton, the son of a German mother and an Irish father, has seized on Rebellion as a way of developing Roth’s preoccupations with the heartlessness of state politics while deepening his own commitment to writing about nationalism and identity. He uses the adventurous device of employing a copy of the first edition as his narrator. (...) This multiplicity of narratives has a congestive effect on the pages of The Pages, but the fable-like style means that we generally accept the somewhat flattened nature of his characters. (...) Clearly these local difficulties align with larger questions the book raises about territorial disagreement and displacement, but even with the conventions of fable, it feels excessive to have so many plot lines converging on the same point. Still, the climax of the novel’s adventure story comes as a surprise" - Andrew Motion, The Guardian

  • "That was not a typo: A copy of Rebellion narrates Hamilton’s novel. This is clearly high-risk/high-yield territory, but surprisingly, The Pages doesn’t really soar or fail based on its unusual conceit. (...) These contemporary strands are well handled, give or take a distracting subplot or two, and build to an effective thriller-like finale. But perhaps predictably, given the novel’s central inspiration, Hamilton is at his best in several sections about Roth and his wife, Friederike. It’s in these moments that The Pages feels most effortlessly immersive, shrewdest in its psychological insights and most moving. (...) The strangest thing about The Pages ends up being its narrator -- not for the audacity of the choice but for its lack of necessity." - John Williams, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(I)ngenious and engaging (.....) In the foreground is the book as sentient, self-conscious human being; in the background is the author Joseph Roth and his wife, Frieda, who are, as Hitler comes to power, facing doom. (...) Hamilton’s own novel makes Lena’s quest for knowledge into a sort of fable or folk tale. This means that the idea of story in The Pages is multi-layered and fabulously unstable." - Colm Tóibín, The Observer

  • "Hamilton has great fun with the conceit of the book as its own narrator, both envious of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which was published to greater acclaim the same year, and grateful to be shelved next to a study of insects (.....) At once allusive, playful, contemplative and consequential, The Pages is a remarkable novel, worthy of its great antecedent." - Michael Arditti, The Spectator

  • "Mr. Hamilton’s The Pages is a capacious hybrid -- in parts a quest novel, a love story and a fictionalized biography (.....) Roth’s story is far more affecting than the modern one it shadows (...) The novel’s theme of history repeating itself is also somewhat clunkily expressed (...) But Mr. Hamilton’s keen eye -- which lights equally on landscape and human eccentricity -- and his benevolent wit, both so evident is his superb memoir The Speckled People, here deepen and humanize a commendably erudite and earnest novel. " - Anna Mundow, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Pages has a clever and appealing conceit: it is narrated by a book -- a 1924 first edition of Joseph Roth's novel Die Rebellion.
       The Pages opens in the present-day, the Roth-volume in the hand baggage of Lena Knecht as she flies from New York to Germany. Lena inherited the book from her father, who had been a baker in East Germany and emigrated after the fall of the Berlin Wall; it had come to him from his father, who had been entrusted with the volume when he was a student by a professor of his, in 1933, to save it from being burned by the Nazis. The professor, David Glückstein, had drawn something on one of the book's blank back pages -- "a diagram -- half map, half illustration", the book-narrator revealing to the reader that:

It's a private memory, drawn to remember a day on which the professor stood in the company of the woman he loved, and buried something precious under a sundial to keep it from falling in the wrong hands.
       The Pages is set into motion by Lena now heading to Germany to find the secret of the map and what might be buried there.
       The book-as-narrator idea has a lot of potential, and Hamilton invests his volume with considerably more than just its nominal contents; it has a history, experience accumulated over nearly a century, and its own voice; it has a personality of its own. It points out: "I cannot speak directly to Lena" -- not least because Lena doesn't speak or read German (though the book is apparently comfortable understanding English ...). But it does: "crave a reader. Somebody to breathe life back into my pages".
       The book does feature fairly prominently in the story. Lena loses it, but then is soon re-united with it -- introducing her to Armin, the person who returns it to her --, though with a page missing; that pages is eventually also returned, albeit defaced -- and the book is further damaged in the novel's final showdown .....
       Hamilton struggles a bit with how to make this physical object a plausible narrator and character. A good start does have him give books a life of their own, as, for example:
We talk among ourselves in libraries at night. You might think public libraries are quiet places. You should hear the racket, the debates, the sheer volume of opinions going back and forth along the shelves until dawn. Everyone talking at once. It's like an enormous thought-fight.
       When Lena visits the library in which the volume had been long shelved the other books celebrate, "cheering in a collective hum. It's the greatest welcome you can imagine". Elsewhere, Hamilton uses familiarity with other works of literature as literary examples, referring to a variety of books to suggest different approaches, as in considering:
     And how do you describe love ?
     Fontane kept it short. His description of Effi Briest's frozen fingers being gently prised apart with kisses does it all. Another German writer once cut it down to a single line -- then for a while it was nice. A British writer reduced it to a brief tangle of pubic hair. A female author living in the United States describes a woman waking up after a year spent in a drug-induced sleep with the vague memory of her boyfriend's testicles sweeping across her face.
     What more is there to say ?
       The book often has even more to say and refer to, going on at greater length with the example-lists taken from literature, playing coy with names and titles. At its worst, the pseudo-dramatic presentation completely undermines the weight of the message, as when he describes: "a book by a Russian journalist who was murdered for telling the truth", describing her work and then the her killing at some length before the dramatic reveal:
     Her name is Anna Politkovskaya. The book is called A Small Corner of Hell.
       It comes across as overblown theater, and would have been much more effective if Hamilton had either left the name unmentioned (as he does in the case of many of the other books his narrator alludes to and describes) or stated it much more simply from the start.
       The book also repeatedly discusses the life and work of Joseph Roth, and especially his own great love, wife Friedl, and her tragic fate. Their sad story is woven into the many others in the novel -- Lena's in the present-day, as well as some retrospective scenes, of life (and the fate of books) under the Nazis as well as in the German Democratic Republic.
       Lena is an artist. She is married, but her husband, Michael, remains in the United States while she travels to Europe. They are in frequent contact, and Hamilton gives Michael issues of his own to deal with while Lena is away: his mother is having difficulties with neighbors who are being very unneighborly about some of their property. It's an escalating standoff, taken almost to the absurd -- clearly meant to reflect the situation in pre-war Germany, but a somewhat distracting secondary storyline. (It actually sounds like material for a decent stand-alone novel, but it's an odd and awkward fit here -- especially given its remove from our book-narrator.) Eventually, Michael does also follow Lena to Europe -- ultimately riding in to the rescue, though not before their relationship has been sorely tested.
       Other significant characters include Berlin art gallery owner Julia -- who has a child, Matt, who has: "got himself into some bad company, a bit of trouble with drugs". (Matt is also: "African European. His father is from Nigeria and Julia is German".) Then there's Armin, the man who returned the book to Lena, after it was lost. He is a Chechen refugee (because, of course ...) -- and he has a sister, Madina, who is an up-and-coming singer (and has a prosthetic leg ...). Madina had a married lover who remains obsessed with her and causes all sorts of trouble, and is becoming increasingly threatening; eventually, he becomes a big problem.
       It's quite a few threads Hamilton weaves together here, and arguably he strays rather far with some of them. They do (mostly) tie together in the end -- but it does all feel rather forced. As indeed does too much of the novel., The Pages is way too programmatic, a message novel that hammers home its (too many) messages insistently at every turn (and makes quite a few of those turns overly sensationalistic, on top of it).
       The narrative is torn between its narrator -- who is limited in action and movement, after all -- and its ambitious reach with its storylines, ranging from Michael's mother's issues in the United States to Madina and her singing career (though the book-narrator is able to offer some insight into her obsessed fan and lover), not to mention reaching back into history (Joseph Roth's experiences, as well as life under the Nazis and in the GDR). Much of this sounds fairly promising -- and might have been even more so with a (much) tighter focus, especially one in which the book would have been allowed to have a more central and prominent role. (One nice scene has Julia's book club taking up the Roth novel -- the narrator anticipating: "This was it -- the psychoanalysis. The trial by book club" -- but this, too, Hamilton doesn't take nearly far or deep enough.)
       The novel is also simply too schematic. The author had a clever idea, but the blueprint of how he then mapped the whole story out is still all too evident beneath the narrative; the novel feels constructed rather than written. Too often, also, the style is too conscious of the (various) subject matters' seriosity; indeed, most of the best writing here comes when the book-narrator is more or less out of the picture, rather than pushing itself to the fore (though it is the other extreme -- the book completely at the fore -- that likely would have made for the most interesting novel).
       For better and worse, there's a lot packed into The Pages. It reads easily enough and quickly -- there's always a lot going on -- and offers some satisfying stories (though also a few too many looser threads); it is a nice homage to Roth, with a good fill of biography for those less familiar with his life and work. Hamilton doesn't do quite enough with his inspired choice of narrator, and isn't quite always sure what to make of it -- how to present a book as sentient object -- but there are as many hits as misses in this regard.
       At one point the book says: "The world is full of confusion and people need stories more than ever before". Hamilton perhaps tries to present too much of that confusion in the book, with his emigrant characters and domestic disputes (down to the story of Lena's father's workplace issues, back in the day, the reason she was sent to live with her mother in Ireland for a year), not to mention all the history he addresses, but there certainly is a fill of stories here, many of which are reasonably satisfying.
       If, ultimately, The Pages is more a book-club-selection book -- something for everyone; so much that can be discussed -- than a good novel, there's still certainly enough here that's worthwhile to make for a decent quick read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2022

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Links:

The Pages: Reviews: Joseph Roth: Other books by Hugo Hamilton under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Irish author Hugo Hamilton was born in 1953.

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© 2022 the complete review

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