BookBrowse Reviews The Society of Others by William Nicholson

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The Society of Others

by William Nicholson

The Society of Others by William Nicholson X
The Society of Others by William Nicholson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2005, 240 pages

    Paperback:
    Jan 2006, 240 pages

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A stunning intellectual adventure, a moral fable bursting with art, poetry, music, and profound philosophical insight. 1st Novel

From the book jacket: Written with the pace and thrust of a thriller, this is a stunning intellectual adventure, a moral fable bursting with art, poetry, music, and profound philosophical insight. Drawing readers in with a cool, oddly appealing bluntness, the narrator of The Society of Others launches a disturbingly surreal tale of his adventures in an unnamed country somewhere in Eastern Europe. His plan is to hitchhike through Europe without any destination, but like a character in a Kafka novel, he finds himself confronting a world that defies rational explanation and descending into an orgy of violence that threatens to destroy his power to control his identity.

Comment: The Society of Others is part intellectual adventure and part moral fable, overlaid with profound philosophical insight.  Personally, I thought it was an extraordinary book and one that could be read on many levels. 

A number of reviewers compare it to Kafka's writing.  From what I have read of Kafka, I would say that there are similarities but that the difference is that Kafka tends to set up impossible situations (such as a man being transformed into an insect) and then imbues the story with such realism that the reader is forced to put his/her own interpretation on events.  Nicholson achieves the same end result but starts, as it were, from the opposite end - moving from real to surreal with such aplomb that I found I had crossed the borderline from one to the other with, almost, unquestioning acceptance.

That The Society of Others is open to interpretation is probably the reason for the somewhat mixed reveiws.  For example, Geoffrey Wansell writing for the Daily Mail (UK) says, 'it is thrilling in every sense, but it is also hypnotic, fast-moving, and intellectually challenging, as it twists and turns, leaving you confused, uncertain, even uncomfortable, and yet utterly hooked. A philosophical master class, it is quite staggeringly good.'  At the other end of the scale Publishers Weekly (who I personally think has missed the point) says, 'the moral of the story—you snots in the West don't know how good you have it—comes through so early that the protagonist's final transformation...feels redundant.'

As always, you can read an excerpt for yourself, taken from the first chapter.  However, I must warn you that, read in isolation, these first pages don't really do justice to the book as a whole.  I did not find myself truly 'gripped' until Chapter 3 (halfway down page 28 to be exact!).

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2005, and has been updated for the January 2006 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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