The Last Hundred Days

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The Last Hundred Days (Paperback), Patrick McGuinness, book reviewAt the end of 1989, the brutal Stalinist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania came to an end. Patrick McGuinness was there, and in The Last Hundred Days has written a novel set during this time, following a young Englishman as he arrives in Bucharest to take a job for which he didn’t bother to attend the interview.

Our unnamed narrator finds himself in a world of corruption, paranoia and fear. Romania is a totalitarian Communist state, and no one knows who to trust. Punishments for speaking out or going against the regime and its leader are severe, food is short and hospital conditions are appalling. In the midst of all this, the narrator takes up his job at the university, is drawn into the shady black market world of his colleague Leo, and begins a relationship with the beautiful but mysterious Cilea.

The Last Hundred Days is at times fast-paced and at others somewhat slow and confused – much like the life of the narrator. One day he will be running from the police after meeting with a group of people who arrange illegal border crossings, then he is twiddling his thumbs for a while as nothing much happens. McGuinness’s narrative reflects this, with action coming thick and fast at times and at others giving us the narrator’s memories of his childhood and parents.

These memories are perhaps the weakest part of The Last Hundred Days. They are clearly there to serve as a background for the narrator, to explain why he upped and left England (his father passed away recently), but in all honesty they don’t quite fit with the rest of the novel. A simple explanation that the narrator had nothing left for him in England would have sufficed, rather than the sad and vague memories of his parents.

The strength of The Last Hundred Days is that it much of it reads like non-fiction. Clearly McGuinness has drawn on his personal experience from that time in Romania to write the novel, and it is often easy to forget that this is not an autobiographical memoir, although no doubt there are some autobiographical touches to the novel. For a novel to read like non-fiction is a testament to how well the author has immersed his story and characters in history, and also the strength of his own writing skills. McGuinness writes beautifully, at times with real poetic flair (unsurprising as he is a poet) and at others with an urgency and matter-of-fact style to suit events.

As for McGuinness’s characters, they are quite a mixed bag. The narrator is obviously the one we know best, but he can be very weak, indecisive and generally confused – to be expected in a naive young man thrown into such an environment. Leo brings a dash of colour and liveliness to the pages, being larger than life and always having a plan on the go – there are elements of Only Fools and Horses’ Del Boy to Leo. Cilea is the stereotypical upper class ice princess, who runs the relationship on her terms – like the narrator, we really don’t get to know her very well. The narrator becomes involved with an old Party stalwart, Sergiu Trofim, who is writing his memoirs – in two versions, one edited and approved by the state, and the other accurate version in secret. Trofim is an interesting character: despite being a die-hard Communist, his brand of Communism is not the totalitarianism of Ceausescu, and so Trofim comes across as a cute and cuddly Communist – it doesn’t hurt that he is a polite and intelligent little old man.

The historical aspect of The Last Hundred Days is excellent, and it is clear that McGuinness has used factual events for his fictional characters wherever possible. He writes the history very subtley, so that readers with little or no knowledge of what happened can easily learn and understand events, but it is not patronising and obvious for those who do know – in a nutshell, McGuinness is teaching you history without you realising.

The Last Hundred Days is an excellent novel, with a fantastic set of ingredients – history, excitement, beautiful writing. This may be Patrick McGuinness’s first novel, but I certainly hope it is not his only one.

The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness
Published by Seren, August 2011
Many thanks to Seren Books for providing a review copy of The Last Hundred Days.

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Last Hundred Days, The
by Patrick McGuinness

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Written by eilidhcatriona

A Scottish lass in her late twenties living in London. A prolific reader always interested in something new.

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