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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last King of Scotland

Giles Foden

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To purchase The Last King of Scotland

Title: The Last King of Scotland
Author: Giles Foden
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998
Length: 335 pages
Availability: The Last King of Scotland - US
. The Last King of Scotland - UK
. The Last King of Scotland - Canada
. Le dernier roi d'Ecosse - France
. Der letzte König von Schottland - Deutschland
  • Winner, Whitbread First Novel of the Year, 1998
  • shortlisted for Whitbread Novel of the Year, 1998
  • shortlisted for James Tait Black Memorial Prize, 1998
  • The Last King of Scotland was made into a film in 2006, directed by Kevin Macdonald and starring Forest Whitaker and Gillian Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a dreamlike account of life under African dictator Idi Amin, very well done.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Globe C+ 15/11/1998 Michael Gorra
Christian Science Monitor B 17/12/1998 Merle Rubin
FAZ . 4/2/2002 Wolfgang Steuhl
The Independent A 14/3/1998 Paul Pickering
The LA Times A- 10/1/1999 Walter Abish
Literary Review A 3/1998 William Boyd
London Rev. of Books . 19/3/1998 Hilary Mantel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung B+ 16/4/2002 Uwe Stolzmann
New Criterion A- 4/1999 Brooke Allen
New York . 30/11/1998 Alexandra Lange
The NY Times B- 27/11/1998 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B+ 19/11/1998 Michael Upchurch
Publishers Weekly A 19/10/1998 .
The Spectator A+ 29/8/1998 Victoria Clarke
TLS A 13/3/1998 Michael Kerrigan
The Village Voice B+ 24/11/1998 A.O.Scott
The Washington Post B 24/1/1999 Louis Bayard
Die Zeit A (18/2002) Jens Hohensee

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he book seems so overlong and tired that I suspect it coasted through its first reviews on the strength of its subject alone." - Michael Gorra, Boston Globe

  • "Gerade weil dieser bis in kleinste historische Details recherchierte Roman nicht den Widerstand gegen Hitler, Stalin oder andere angeblich meistverachtete Gestalten zum Gegenstand hat, dringt er tiefer vor als bloß bis unter die Haut." - Wolfgang Steuhl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(A)n audacious, shrewd and spirited first novel." - William Boyd, Literary Review

  • "Überhaupt hätte viel gestrichen werden müssen -- Passagen von ermüdender Weitschweifigkeit, hausbackene Szenen, grosse Mengen redundanter Floskeln und so manch stilistischer Nonsens. Sprache ? Drei minus. Man ärgert sich -- und kommt nicht los. Und dies ist der wahre Wert des Buchs: Dass es den Leser zurückwirft auf sich selbst." - Uwe Stolzmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "With his dark and gruesome first novel The Last King of Scotland, the young British author Giles Foden has created a complex picture of one manís corruption, corruption in the form not of an ignoble act but of an ignoble failure to act." - Brooke Allen, The New Criterion

  • "(A)n uncomfortable amalgam of black comedy and historical tragedy." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "This is a wonderful read, beautifully written, every description drenched with a deep sense of Africa. Giles Foden's first novel is a work of art." - Victoria Clarke, The Spectator

  • "That so passive a protagonist should become the motive force for such a compelling narrative, that this tale of temporizing should provide the focus for so sharp a psychological study, both bear testimony to the assurance of this memorable first novel. Giles Foden moves effortlessly through every register from farce to gruesome tragedy, transfiguring his depressing subject with energy and panache." - Michael Kerrigan, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Er schildert glänzend, wie der junge -- schottische -- Leibarzt sich immer mehr in ein Netz von Faszination und Widerwillen gegenüber seinem groben und rohen Patienten verstrickt." - Jens Hohensee, Die Zeit

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 Last King of Scotland of the title is none other than former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, the psychopath who ruled this African nation from 1971 to 1979. He felt a particular affinity with the Scots -- having been treated well by them, learned from them, and believing to have a common enemy with them in England. The hero of Giles Foden's book -- insofar as it is not Idi Amin himself -- is a hapless Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan. Coming to Uganda as an idealist he inadvertently finds himself pulled into Amin's orbit, becoming his doctor.
       In this position -- though it always remains a peripheral one -- Garrigan becomes witness to Amin's atrocities. Foden paints an excellent picture of the horrors of Amin's Uganda, almost all of it told through the veil of Garrigan who does not really want to see what is happening around him. Foden also very adeptly captures the creeping horror which appears only intermittently and slowly. Evil is not as obvious as we would like to believe (or readers of John Grisham insist). In this Uganda black and white mix in continually but only gradually darkening shades of grey. Even rolly polly Amin is portrayed as the charismatic (and in many respects appealing) figure that he was.
       Garrigan is the perfect observer, marked by his inaction. The British eventually want him to try to kill Amin, but here as elsewhere he begs off. He does not want to be involved, preferring his entirely passive position. This is useful through much of the narrative, but it is also enervating. Garrigan is too hapless, too peripheral, too ineffectual. The reader wants to shake him into action, frustrated by his almost complete passivity.
       The book is also a bit too carefree in placing Garrigan at the center of history. He arrives on the eve of Amin's takeover, he tries to flee the country from Entebbe airport the day the hijacked plane lands there, and so on. What is surprising then is the almost trancelike passing of this whole ignominious episode of history. Before we even realize it Amin has been deposed (with guess who riding in with the victorious Tanzanian forces). The historical moment that Amin represented is given little weight, the complex socio-political factors involved only lightly touched upon, and the international forces and interests involved largely only alluded to. This is acceptable, but makes it difficult for those who are not familiar with Ugandan history (though Foden explains the state of Uganda and its pre-Amin difficulties fairly well).
       For what it is, though, it is an excellent book, and the picture of Amin striking. Foden captures the ogre well, and uncomprehending Garrigan is a useful foil. The atrocities that are shown (including a horrific passage through Amin's private torture chambers) are well done and seem entirely appropriate. Several reviewers complain about the humor in the book being inappropriate to the subject matter. We did not find any aspect of the book that was actually funny. Garrigan is pathetic, not a bumbling fool, and only Amin is an occasionally comic figure -- but the comedy is in his unpredictableness, which is as much a part of what is terrible about him.
       Garrigan does faint a few times too often for our liking (come on, Giles, you can do better than that), and he "forgets" one or two episodes that Foden apparently couldn't figure out how to write. Otherwise the book is very, very well written, with a number of haunting scenes and a solid ending. We particularly like the distant, dreamlike way Garrigan sees Uganda -- while acknowledging that this is also one of the books weaknesses.

       We do recommend this book highly. It helps if the reader is familiar with Uganda (one reviewer asked his students what the name Idi Amin meant to them, and they responded that they did not know who that was, which would make enjoyment of the book a bit more difficult), but it is a very well-written book in any case. There are some scenes in it which will disturb the squeamish, but we find them entirely appropriate and justified.
       Recommended for those interested in Africa, those interested in the banality of evil (about as banal as we have ever come across, and almost perfectly conveyed as such), and those seeking a decent, entertaining read.

       Note that the English reviews were generally considerably more favorable than American ones, i.e. it seems to be more to English tastes than American ones.

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The Last King of Scotland: Reviews: The Last King of Scotland - the film: Other books set in Uganda under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Riccardo Orizio's Idi Amin encounter in Talk of the Devil
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review
  • Index of books relating to Africa

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About the Author:

       Giles Foden was born in England in 1967. His family moved to Africa when he was a child. Since returning to England he has worked at the Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian.

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© 1999-2009 the complete review

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