The Old Terra Vitae, a debut novel from Paddy Green, reads a bit like The Matrix meets Twelve Monkeys told by Family Guy’s Seth MacFarlane. The story is dark and often macabre, but Green uses humour to frame it. It’s certainly a little bit different, and it will appeal to anyone who enjoys and embraces the absurd: most of the story is told from the point of view of a deceased dog by the name of Juju. There are moments of strong violence: shocking in parts, never gratuitous.
Green examines in an off-kilter light the themes of death, time and regret – weighty subjects that he affords refreshing levity. Juju’s friend is a deceased human (sort of) called Loupe, who breaks out of the monotony of his nine to five afterlife when he finds a way to travel in time and look back on his life and the key moments where it all went wrong (A Christmas Carol is another clear influence). His activities put him on the wrong side of The Authority – a sort of bureaucratic celestial secret service – who mercilessly pursue him, forcing him to choose his allies carefully as the domains of the living and the dead threaten to disastrously collide.
The world presented by the author is engaging, and the breadth of imagination is impressive. Green’s literary style and comic timing are also highly commendable. The prose is full of witty and pithy one-liners that are sure to raise a chuckle or more. There are a few downsides that prevent the novel from engaging its readership as fully as it might. On purely aesthetic terms, the absence of page numbers may be intended to deliberately increase the disorientating dream-like quality of the story, but combined with the unusual formatting of blocks of text and some very long descriptive passages, the prose looks dense on the page and it should be remembered that standard formatting is there for the benefit of the reader.
It’s a matter of personal taste whether or not changing points-of-view within a story is palatable. My view is always that when telling the story from the first person, a strong enough protagonist should warrant a consistent narrative voice. However, this is interrupted in The Old Terra Vitae by the combined effect of switching narrators and injecting episodic interludes that introduce new characters in new situations. Whilst the former isn’t too distracting, the latter quickly feels intrusive, and the return to the main narrative thread is always welcome, leaving the digressions perhaps better placed for other stories.
A tighter narrative would bring the best out of the book and the many fresh and inventive ideas at its heart. Like many first novels, it’s a little idea-heavy, and not all of them stick. Juju is alleged to be alcoholic – an addiction that permeates every facet of life (or in this case, death) – but then it’s never clear from the text that he even likes a drink. There are other elements of the story that deserve fuller explanation but which become lost in the (rather complex, it has to be said) telling of it.
Overall verdict: The Old Terra Vitae is full of interesting ideas not always fully explored, which creates a richly imaginative world that can lack consistency and focus. For the most-part, the shortcomings in the narrative drive are counteracted by witty, richly descriptive language that is very funny in parts. Delightful turns of phrase are the author’s key strength.
The Old Terra Vitae is available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.