The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of The Road to Jerusalem, by Jan Guillou

I had such a great time reading this book! It’s one of those novels that reminds you why it’s fun to be a bookworm.

And I have to start off by giving credit to the translator, Steven T. Murray. Guillou is Swedish, and so Murray gets credit for making the book read so smoothly in English, even if he did confuse (or leave confused) Odessa with Edessa. A translator can make or break a book, and Murray certainly did a great job with this one.

Oddly, none of The Road to Jerusalem takes place in Jerusalem. That’s because The Road to Jerusalem is the first book of a trilogy. And it is the Road TO Jerusalem. As in “en route.” This book takes place in Sweden, or pre-Sweden. Also, I have always maintained that books in a series should be able to stand alone and be read individually or even out of order. So few series live up to that standard, including this one, but this time I didn’t care.

So, what was so wonderful about this book that made me overlook the nitpicks? Lots! Never before have I been so drawn in to a character’s story as I was to that of Arn Magnusson — whose tale begins in the womb. Indeed, at first the story looks like it’s going to be the sage of Arn’s parents. But no. After his parents and older brother are introduced and turned into fully fleshed-out characters, Arn is born, becomes a charming child, falls off a building and almost dies, and gets sent off to a monastery because his parents vowed they’d give him to God if he survived. This sets the “God spared you for a purpose, Arn” theme that then permeates the rest of the book.

So how interesting can a boy in a monastery be, you may be asking? This is where much of the action takes place, and where Guillou builds the foundation for about 1/3 of this book and the two to follow. With sure, confident pacing, the author takes Arn on an exploration of his interests, guided, but not explicitly directed, by the French monks of the Cistercian order. Most prominent among these are Father Henri, prior of the monastery and Arn’s chief guardian and confessor; and Brother Guilbert de Beaune, smithy, weapons master and, in terms of his real role in the story, Man with a Mysterious Secret about His Past. Together with the rest of the brothers, they prepare Arn for a number of contingencies, while not steering him toward any specific future. Eventually, Arn leaves the monastery and returns to his family, where it becomes apparent that the French know a thing or three more than the proto-Swedes of Arn’s clan. Arn has a few adventures, falls in love, and … the book ends with the set-up for the sequel.

Character development is a strong point in this novel. For example, Arn is conflicted, humble, and naive, yet he knows that he has special gifts and talents, which the French monks honed to a fine point. Even the villains’ thought processes make sense, for the most part, as they are usually more ignorant than vile. 

Guillou doesn’t try anything avant-garde or trendy – all he does is tell a good story well. What more do readers want? I highly recommend this book.

There are animals throughout the book, with some named horses – and the mysterious Brother Guilbert is a kind of horse whisperer. Arn bonds with a couple of Brother G’s “special” horses, stallions named Shimal and Khamsiin. And the horses serve Arn well. While I don’t think they quite come up to the level of being characters, that may change in subsequent books. In any case, there’s not much here for animal lovers to worry or get excited about.

It’s a good book – I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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September 8, 2011 - Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, horses, translation, Uncategorized | , , ,

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