Review of The Book of Daniel by EL Doctorow

I wanted to park space this month, but stay with the 1950s Red Scare theme from Liberty One, to talk about one of my favourite historical fiction titles. 

The Book of Daniel put Doctorow on my three-strong list of recommended fiction authors. By that, I mean an author who’s consistently good across at least two titles (Billy Bathgate excepted). That seems like a very low bar, but, with limited time, I guess I’m just picky. This is all very subjective and I don’t read all genres, but if you like modern historical fiction – which happens to be my bag – you might want to check out the late Doctorow.

His writing style oozes brain power and I love the way he constructs the characters and story, which are worthy goals for my own writing. He was an editor so you’d expect him to know what he was doing.

This book is a justice-injustice thriller which echoes the fate of the real Rosenbergs, who were convicted and executed as American Communist spies during the Red Scare between 1949 and the mid-fifties. The context is U.S. Soviet relations, atom bombs and American social hysteria over Communism. It’s told in the voice of their fictional son Daniel as an adult in the mid-1960s, though most of it arrives in the form of flashbacks from his childhood when the tale happened.

As you’d expect, he didn’t really understand what was happening as a child, when he and his kid sister were orphaned, following their parents’ imprisonment, jaded trial and grizzly fate. Yes, this medieval barbarity actually occurred in the heart of democracy just as mankind’s ingenuity would soon break its shackles with earth. The book goes on to dramatise whether the conviction was fair or not and questions the informant’s morality.

You’ll have to pay extra attention at the beginning to figure out what the story is about and where it’s going, though that’s not unusual for a Doctorow or even other revered late 20th century literary fiction. The story’s point of view shifts frequently from first person to third, from past tense to present, so there’s a bit of concentration required to keep up. I don’t personally have a problem with shifting perspectives, though any self-respecting editor today would also call these out as writing no-nos. I personally think the industry treats readers like dumbos. If one of America’s top authors thought it was okay, who exactly has a problem?

I only wish Doctorow had dispensed with the occasional unsavoury – and frankly pointless to the story – sordid scenes which detract from a great novel. They yanked me straight out of the story (another cardinal sin) and that’s the only reason it doesn’t get 5 stars. The main one to skip is about a third in, when Daniel’s driving a car on a rainy night with his wife and child. I recommend you just skip to the next chapter when you get to this bit.

Overall verdict: Intellectual tour de force but also a great story when the author stops gassing. I’m certain to read it again.

Audio book: Perfect narration by Mark Deakins, like hand in glove for this story. Loved the energy and voices for the different characters. I listened at 1.5-1.75 speed once my head got the flow.

Memorable quotes:

“His death is described as a progressive deterioration of possibilities … the horizons diminish to point zero. That is his death. A kind of prison cell concept of death … a real prison is death’s metaphor.”

“War weakened, man poor, Russia is seen as a tottering bear who can be brought down. Simply don’t give her anything to hold on to.”


Click here to get The Book of Daniel on Amazon

Other interesting reviews which you may have missed:
Astronaut Wives Club: A great non-fiction book which does exactly what it says in the title.
Rocket Men: Another amazing book which retells mankind’s first foray to the moon on Apollo 8.

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