Friday, February 11, 2011

The Emperor's Body by Peter Brooks

Where I got the book: another LibraryThing Early Reviewer win.

The Emperor's Body is a début novel by a professor who has published several works of non-fiction. So I'm going to assume that the historical detail in the book is reasonably accurate.* It is set around true events of 1840, and makes use of many of the personages involved in those events.

What happened in France in 1840 was that King Louis Philippe I, France's last king, took the slightly dodgy decision to have the body of Napoleon Bonaparte brought back from the island of Saint Helena where he had died in exile. It was a political maneuver at best, and at worst could be seen as a cheap publicity stunt (depending on where you stood at the time as to whether France should be ruled by a king, an emperor, or the people).

Into these events Brooks weaves a love triangle involving the real Philippe de Rohan-Chabot, the young diplomat placed in effective charge of the mission, the real writer Henri Beyle (better known as Stendhal) and a fictional young woman called Amelia or Amélie.

And this is the point at which I ask, why?

As far as I'm concerned, the return of Napoleon's remains is a pretty interesting story to begin with. Brooks is a good writer and dramatizes the political intrigues well. There's a nice gloomy atmosphere of wet weather and big useless marble buildings, exactly like visiting certain parts of Paris on a cold day, and I could hear the ringing of spurs and the grinding noise of carriages on cobblestones. I would have thought that all this could have provided enough material for a pretty good political novel.

And yet somehow we have this story about this girl who doesn't really want to marry Philippe, quite fancies Beyle but isn't sure whether she should sleep with him, and would kinda rather write books anyway. Jane Eyre meets Days of Our Lives. And the POV jumps around between all the characters PLUS Older Amelia who is looking back on the whole episode. It just doesn't work for me. And there's something about paunchy, balding Beyle being a chick magnet that has me murmuring "wish fulfillment." Which is a pity, because as books go it's very well written and intelligent.

I'm going to check out Brooks' non-fiction work, though. He seems to have an engaging knack for telling a real story.

*No writer ever admits that another writer could possibly be extremely accurate. It's just not done.

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