Book Review for “The Astonishing Life of August March” by Aaron Jackson
According to the blurbs about this debut novel, it is being called “Candide by way of John Irving, with a hint of Charles Dickens.” While I’m not sure if that’s totally accurate, but it surely comes as close as these types of comparisons can get (which is almost never all that close). These blurbs also say, “Abandoned as an infant by his actress mother in her theater dressing room, August March was raised by an ancient laundress. Highly intelligent, a tad feral, August is a true child of the theater – able to recite Shakespeare before he knew the alphabet. But like all productions, August’s wondrous time inside the theater comes to a close, and he finds himself in the wilds of postwar New York City”.
Let me start out by saying that this is probably one of the more unusual books I’ve ever read. At least, it certainly started out as a very unusual story. Of course, it is absurd that a woman could give birth so easily, between acts of a play, and then just walk back on stage, finish the final act and then walk away as if nothing had ever happened. I’m talking physiologically, it is practically impossible, if not literally unfeasible, and frankly, quite ridiculous. That is exactly how this book begins, but thankfully, things become more credible soon afterwards, even if they are a touch fantastic from time to time. There’s also some serendipity that happens throughout the book, that might feel unrealistic, but not totally preposterous. However, to Jackson’s credit, he never tries to explain away any of this with some kind of magic or anything other-worldly. In fact, despite my deep-seated belief that August’s mother could never have given birth to him in that way, almost everything else in Jackson’s book could actually have happened to a real person.
If the description of August’s birth was one thing that didn’t sit right with me, I should admit that there were also a couple other problems I had with this book. The least of which was how old Jackson made the woman who finds and raises August. From my math, it seems that she lived until well into her hundreds, all while continuing to work full-time as the laundress for the theater. I doubt it, but let’s put that down to hyperbole. My bigger niggle was that, for some reason, the book felt like it should have been placed much further in the past. Jackson starts the action here between the two world wars, and then follows August’s life through the 1960s, edging on the 70s. Despite knowing this, I kept having to remind myself that things like air travel and phones in every home weren’t historically incorrect. Now, this could be because August was brought up on Shakespeare and other classics, making August’s manner of speaking very old fashioned. That in turn, may have colored the much of the rest of the narrative. It could also have been the whole period when August is essentially a street urchin, which always puts me in mind of Oliver Twist (yes, the blurb was right about the touch of Dickens).
Don’t get me wrong, all these negatives don’t mean that I didn’t like this book. In fact, I really enjoyed it, overall. Jackson’s use of archaic language for August was particularly fun, and I really got a feel for August as a character. He was smart, he was resourceful, he was persistent, and he was – of course – flawed in just the right amounts (well, maybe too much booze, but some of that was understandable, if not in certain circumstances, forgivable). I also liked how Jackson threw in all sorts of twists throughout the action, and enjoyed how he had August cope with each of them (or not cope with them, as sometimes was the case. Furthermore, the romantic relationship with Penny was equally as fun to watch, and not in the lest bit sentimental, even when August’s angst and frustration that things weren’t going the way he wanted them to go, was clearly evident. Mind you, Penny wasn’t quite as vivid a character as August was, but this is his story, not hers.
This all brings me back to the opening of the blurb. Candide? Yes, in a way, since August seems to go from one adventure (or misadventure) to the next, pushed around by his surroundings. John Irving? Sorry, but no, because Irving is the master of long-winded, off topic, asides and this book was very nicely focused. Dickens? Well, as I already mentioned, this did have a few shades of Oliver Twist. So, two out of three isn’t bad, especially because the drawback of the outlier has become the reason why I stopped reading Irving. For all this, I think this well written debut novel deserves a healthy four out of five stars, and recommend it to anyone who likes an amusing, historical, coming-of-age story, even if it is a tad absurd, to read during these difficult times!
Harper Collins released “The Astonishing Life of August March” by Aaron Jackson on April 7, 2020. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from as well as from Bookshop.org or an IndieBound store near you.