A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom: Lively but long-winded

John Boyne’s time-shifting novel buckles under laboured speech and historicalese

John Boyne: The best-selling author, speaking through his various conduits, has a serially unmusical voice in his new novel. Photograph: Alan Betson

John Boyne: The best-selling author, speaking through his various conduits, has a serially unmusical voice in his new novel. Photograph: Alan Betson

John Boyne’s lively and overreaching new novel begins with King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents and ends in the future. Its artist narrator lives the normal lifespan of a human, but over two millennia. Sometimes he paints boats in Egypt, embroiders in South Korea or writes novels from Scottish jails.

The perspective of A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom shifts a few decades with each chapter, its story and most of the particulars being taken up in relay by a different man in a different country. But each has a violent older brother, a protective and jealous sister who would have made a great warrior had it not been for her gender, and a handsome, clever adopted cousin who will cause the narrator great pain and drive him to seek vengeance.

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