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Book review: Dandy a novel by Jan Guillou

Today I'll be reviewing a book I have mixed feelings about but in a way that makes reviewing even more fun. At times, it is good to feel torn about something, to keep beating one's head over some questions. I like to believe that the purpose of books is, among other things, to make us think. In that sense, Dandy is a successful novel, for it sure made me think! Whenever I found a book I like, but there are some some things I dislike about it,  I start to question my criticism. Is it valid or not? Nevertheless, the point of book reviews is to present our opinion of the book and that's what I'll do today. So, what kind of a novel is Dandy? It is a family saga of sorts, a historical novel that is also a second book in the series.

Published in 2012, Dandy is a novel that starts with the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, an event that marked an end of an era. Dandy was my first novel by Jan Guillou. I previously haven't even heard of this French- Swedish author, so I didn't have any expectations when it came to this book. I wasn't even aware that Dandy was a second novel in Guillou series. Not until I have finished reading this book and looked it up, that is. Once I had read, I obviously knew there must be a sequel. From what I gathered, there are more sequels to follow (five I think?). Jan Guillou has written a whole series devoted to The Great Century (20th century) and Dandy is the second book in the row.

I'm not sure is there an English translation available or not. Obviously, I hadn't read it in the original since I don't speak the language (Swedish or any other Scandinavian language). I opted for a Croatian translation that seemed fine (not that there is any way I could know for sure). At any rate, the language was quite beautiful (whether this is credit to the translator or the author, I can't say). As soon as I started reading Dandy, I found myself immersed into the story. The plot opened with three Swedish brothers who are at crossroads of their life, sort of speak. One of the brothers, Sverre a young engineer that has fallen in love with an English lord Albert while they were studying engineering in Germany, has left his family to come live with the mentioned lord.

The first novel in the series seems to deal with the childhood of the three brothers, but it was not hard to follow this book as it explains their background pretty well and I had a feeling I knew them. Anyway, the youngest Swedish brother finds himself in a noble gentleman's house, where he had expected a simple village home. Completely unprepared for meeting the family of his partner, the young Swede has to navigate complex social structure of English society. All of this happening soon after Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, hence the title dandy. At start, I literally couldn't put the novel down. I was very much interested in their love story. That fascination lasted until page 200 or so, with a few ups and downs, but it went downhill from there. The author seemed to worry more about pushing his own political agenda and his own interpretation of historical events then he cared about the characters and the plot, which is a shame because it started as a great novel.

I won't get into too much detail, because there is no way I can open certain topics without writing about them in length, but basically I think that Jan Guillou got a little carried away with his interpretation of history and hence the novel wasn't as successful as it could have been. He seems to glorify Germany a bit too much, and at the same he is overly critical of England. Moreover, I don't think Jan understands what is was like to be homosexual at that point at time. For this and some others reasons, Dandy has failed to be a worthy part of a family saga (maybe other sequels will prove better), but it was still a very enjoyable read. My impressions of this novel could easily be divided into three parts. The first part of the novel is outstanding, the second is pretty good and the third is pretty bad. By that I mean that the ending is quite unrealistic.

Towards the end, I found it really hard to emphasize with the characters. The so-called pacifist and quasi artists living the life in the villa while the other English people were starving, actually cheering for Germany and idolizing it (????!!!). You can see how I didn't see them as heroes, right? I do understand that some of these characters were sincerely against the war as such and also unhappy about certain unjust things that were happening in England, but at least you could have helped your country in some way- work the fields if nothing else. Sverre was an attractive character, much more likable that the other 'artists' but even he lacked character development. I could understand his love for art, but not much else. His relationship with Maggie in particular puzzled me greatly. It made no sense whatsoever. I felt that we as readers were really fully introduced with Sverre. On the other hand, at least we got to see his development as an artist.

Indeed, that was the one thing I did like a lot, and that was the development of the young Swede as an artist/painter. The passages about his painting and his development as a painter were so sincere and well written they were a joy to read! I could literally see the paintings he created before my eyes. It is such a shame that both he and his beloved lord palled away before history reflections and politics. I wanted to know more about their love life and their personal stories, but after a great start, the author just left it there and moved onto other subjects.

Maggie, the sister of the lord, was a characters that didn't make much sense and to be honest she seemed terribly similar to one sister character in Maurice, a novel by E.M Foster. Now that I think of it, some other things seems to have been taken from Maurice, that famous first English gay novel. A bit to much for my liking, to be sincere. I'm not using the word plagiarism because they are quite different novels, but a bit of originality in describing homosexual love wouldn't have hurt.

So, as you can see, I have quite mixed feelings about this one. Still, I would recommend Dandy because it was, for most part, a very enjoyable read. Just don't take it as a great historical novel. The author seems very bias to me, and it gets into the way of his writing. For most part, this novel is set in England and let's just say I think England deserved more. That's the most simple way I can put it. To conclude, Dandy is a book I enjoyed reading but I wasn't blown away by it. I might read more of this author in the future.


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