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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Dream of Scipio

Iain Pears

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To purchase The Dream of Scipio

Title: The Dream of Scipio
Author: Iain Pears
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002
Length: 396 pages
Availability: The Dream of Scipio - US
The Dream of Scipio - UK
The Dream of Scipio - Canada
Le songe de Scipion - France
Scipios Traum - Deutschland
Il sogno di Scipione - Italia
El sueño de Escipión - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good, but almost crushed by its ambition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 30/5/2002 Ron Charles
Daily Telegraph A 25/5/2002 Tom Holland
Entertainment Weekly C 28/6/2002 Troy Patterson
Evening Standard . 27/5/2002 T.J. Binyon
The Guardian . 10/8/2002 Ian Sansom
The LA Times . 7/7/2002 Michael Harris
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/6/2002 John Crowley
The Observer C 26/5/2002 Jonathan Heawood
San Francisco Chronicle . 30/6/2002 Carey Harrison
The Spectator . 15/6/2002 Feta Ahmed
Sunday Telegraph A 12/5/2002 David Robson
The Times . 15/5/2002 .
TLS . 24/5/2002 David McAllister
The Washington Post . 23/6/2002 Geraldine Brooks

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but almost all quite or very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pears has constructed a kind of literary Rubik's Cube, spinning these stories through each other in short chapters that produce fascinating patterns and parallels. (...) One of the dazzling pleasures of this novel is Pears's ability to follow the bumblebee flight of an idea through the ravages of time. (...) This is a novel for our time about all time." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "The book is a remarkable read, compulsive not only as a historical novel, but also as a genuine novel of ideas." - Tom Holland, Daily Telegraph

  • "Throughout, dialogue and narration remain stiffly academic (.....) This is how "the novel of ideas" became a dirty phrase." - Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly

  • "It initially seems dry, philosophically abstract, and artificially schematic in its linking of the three narratives. But the breadth of reference, the fluent and convincing recreation of three very different milieux are impressive. And, gradually, (...) the novel gains in power and weight, irresistibly seizes the imagination and ends in almost unbearable tragedy." - T.J. Binyon, Evening Standard

  • "Some readers may already be feeling confused and overwhelmed by this mere précis: the plot is certainly dense, if not at times impenetrable. The real benefit and the satisfactions of the book lie not so much in its impressively complex design, but rather in its neat set-piece scenes." - Ian Sansom, The Guardian

  • "He is lucid and informative but compared with Camus, a little bloodless. His characters all sound alike. His intellectual framework -- though audacious and sophisticated and admirably suited for an essay -- is confining for fiction." - Michael Harris, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Pears's story is like one of those symmetrical, seemingly patent but teasingly complex knots that decorate ancient Celtic manuscripts. Three interwoven stories twine in and out of one another, revealing similarities, creating patterns and connections. (...) By the time these conclusions are reached, Pears has perhaps tightened his knot a bit too firmly; the ultimate fates of all three characters seem to be the result not of their choices or the inexplicable workings of history but of the manipulations of the hard-working author. Pattern exacts its price in fiction. Pears's writing is sturdy, sometimes pedestrian; all his characters sound like the narrator, and like one another. But none of this will detract from most readers' enjoyment. Pears builds a multilayered tale of moral choice, love, danger and loss." - John Crowley, The New York Times Book Review

  • "No single story provides the frame for the others, and we jump between historical moments every other paragraph. There's a lot of movement, but very little progression. (...) The plot has more in common with an academic treatise than with a thriller. In fact, there are more exciting PhD theses. (...) This ambitious novel is so busy chasing its tail that it forgets to go forwards." - Jonathan Heawood, The Observer

  • "Is it possible to tread a tightrope between competing evils ? Is purity of heart enough ? Is it ever right to sacrifice the innocent few for the greater good, and if not, must we simply back off and surrender power to evil ? These are the questions that Pears addresses with patience and ingenuity, as his three heroes encounter similar moral conundrums dressed in the garb of different centuries." - Carey Harrison, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The narrative is a kaleidoscopic affair (sometimes relentlessly so) which shifts rapidly between the characters, allowing the reader few opportunities to settle down in any of the periods for long, and its elaborate structure often highlights the parallels between the situations a little too neatly. However, all these features are minor criticisms of a novel which is less concerned with nuances, plot and characterisation and more with ideas and the dilemmas they pose." - Feta Ahmed , The Spectator

  • "The story spans nearly 1,500 years of European history, but is beautifully constructed and, for such a cerebrally challenging book, remarkably easy to read. (...) Brilliantly drawn minor characters -- from saintly anchorites to lecherous painters, from popes reluctant to have their breakfast interrupted to wily mandarins collaborating with Nazis -- complete a busy, but never overcrowded, canvas." - David Robson, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Each of his characters grapples with the moral issues surrounding the ideas of loyalty and integrity when these are tested by war, the threat of torture and death. Each one has to decide, ultimately, between resistance and appeasement, to disentangle the wish for self-preservation from the reasoning which glosses self-deceiving ways of achieving it." - The Times

  • "But this is a beautifully constructed novel, and Pears jumps effortlessly between the three narratives, as the choice that faces each character is made clear and the "Dream" of the philosophy is put to the test. The novel builds to a bloody, tense and highly topical denouement, in which political expedience demands the persecution of a minority, and individual resistance seems futile, selfish and naive." - David McAllister, Times Literary Supplement

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 Dream of Scipio is in many ways an impressive novel, and yet not entirely satisfactory. It is a novel of ideas -- philosophical ideas, put into practice: an admirable ambition, yet one that ultimately lends the fiction a constructed feel, as the author tries to fit a narrative to these ideas (and allows it all to work out far too neatly).
       Pears decides on a relatively complex structure for his novel. He tells not one but three stories. They are loosely connected but in fact are separated by hundred of years from one another. Pears recounts his stories in small chunks, episodes a few pages long, often switching from one era to another to another in the space of a few pages. At first the alternating stories are welcome: evenly paced, the novel trots along quickly. Over some four hundred pages, however, the pacing becomes relentless and finally simply exhausting: it is all too much.
       Unfortunately, also, each of the stories follows a similar arc (and catastrophic end). In fact, The Dream of Scipio is a tale told thrice -- when once (with perhaps some historical embellishment borrowed from the other two) would have sufficed. It is all too much.
       There's undeniable cleverness here, and much of what Pears writes is of interest. All the main strands of the novel are set in southern France. One story tells of late-Roman times, as Manlius Hippomanes is faced with the rapid decline of Roman power and the threat of outside invaders taking over. A second strand is centred around Olivier de Noyen, a medieval poet during plague-times, a period when the papacy stands on somewhat uncertain footing. The last strand centres on Julien Barneuve, who comes to work for the Vichy government during the German occupation in World War II.
       The stories are connected because each of these characters knows and is influenced by the stories of the preceding ones (though not always fully aware of all the details). It is specifically a Neoplatonic text, "The Dream of Scipio", that unites them -- and it is their fates to test the ideas discussed therein.
       In each of their cases, civilization is breaking apart around them: not with one fell swoop, but simply and quickly crumbling. Pears puts it nicely when he describes the situation in France early in World War II, before anyone had even seen any Germans, before any German planes had even flown over Paris:

No newsreels reporting the debacle had come in from the front. They were all flying from an idea, nothing more concrete than that, and as they fled, the delicate tissue of society came apart.
       The situations they find themselves in then test philosophies: how should one act, and what must be preserved (the splendours (and basis) of civilization itself, or individuals, for example). Matters are further complicated in each case because each of the three main characters falls in love with a woman he can not have, outsiders too.
       Eventually matters come to a desperate head, and choices must be made. Horrible things happen, and the characters must and do act -- usually terribly nobly. There's a great deal of self-sacrifice.

       Pears does offer good adventure, and while the fates of all three are a bit too pat and predictable, readers should find most of these tales quite gripping. Still: the three strands are two too many, and they are not tied together convincingly enough. One strong lead and two minor storylines would have been much more effective than what Pears has done, with the three equally strong storylines competing against (and distracting from) one another.
       Pears is quite good in telling the stories, but the writing shows occasional weaknesses, especially in his efforts to make his characters even more extraordinary than they already are. So, for example, Manlius and Sophia exchange letters which perish in a fire, and Pears insists
What they produced together might well have been considered the finest collection of love letters ever written, had the baker been more careful.
       Simply remarkable love letters wouldn't do ? They had to be contenders for the title of finest ever ?
       Worse is a nice scene in which a young girl (who will become a painter) admires some pictures in an art gallery, with the artist then allowing her to purchase one for all the money she has on her (a bit of pocket change). It would be tolerable -- good, even -- as is, with the painter's complaints and that final exchange, but Pears can't resist giving the painter an identity (revealing it, of course, only at the very end of this anecdote) and it is, of course, the name of a painter who would go one to be very famous indeed. It's a terrible and unnecessary touch, ruining the entire scene.
       The philosophical lessons are also hammered home far too hard: there's little subtlety here. And the combination of didactic tale, action story, and romance -- all done three times over -- is simply: too much.
       The Dream of Scipio is an interesting triptych, but an imperfect one.

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The Dream of Scipio: Reviews: Other books by Iain Pears under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Iain Pears was born in 1955. He attended Oxford and has written numerous books.

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