There is so much to like about Mark Benno's THIS WONDERFUL YEAR, it's hard to know where to start. There are a number of "love-affairs" to be experienced while reading this book. From Mr. Benno's first literary "wink" at the reader at the beginning, establishing his storytelling conceit and framing his tale, to the very last word of the novel, you will be swept forward into this reading adventure as dramatically and suddenly as Edward Pamprill was swept aboard into his adventures on the high seas. And what a pleasure this forced conscription is! Benno's storytelling is marvelous! This storytelling was my first "love-affair" with the book. What a tale! When so many novels are leaping straight to the form and proportions of screenplays, Benno's storytelling returns the reader to the literary antecedents of the Odyssey, where almost anything could happen (short of men being turned into swine). I don't want to give away one single thing from this book, but I have to confess that I had more than a vocal "theatrical" gasp at the conclusion of a certain "quarrel of honor" that took place in the novel. Special effects be damned! The effect of this scene was more special than CGI, believe me. But then, fewer and fewer readers these days have the "software" (gray-ware??) to enjoy the special effects that Benno has taken special care to achieve in this work. Bravo.
My second love affair with this novel was in Benno's thrilling use of language. Often I found myself reading it aloud just for the sensation of uttering his phrases. Never thorny, but always elegant, it helped immerse me deeper into a different age and world. I have not checked yet, but I hope this novel gets into audio format soon. I would love to experience it again (but I would not dare listen to it behind the wheel of a car!). Come to think of it, not many actors would be able to keep pace with Benno's text and pull it off without disappointing the listener. May I suggest Ralph Fiennes? Alan Rickman?
My third love affair was with the historical context of the novel. Usually, I expect a novelist to remain unnoticed during my enjoyment of his or her work, but I kept admiring just how detailed Benno was with his history, much of which I was learning for the first time. This made the details more engrossing. The more I admired the novel, the more I admired the skill of this person who created it while I read. One caveat: I thought I detected a few anachronistic ideas at play (perhaps something post-Freudian? Can't remember...) or a word or two that might not have been around in the 19th century, but these were not important--or I would have remembered them. Or I might have been wrong. (It has been a few months since I read the book). But it was only Benno's meticulous attention to historical authenticity to begin with that made me start looking for these tiny nits at all. These inconsequential nits will be those footnotes that English professors will get paid to remind us of in a hundred years time, if Benno achieves the kind of success he deserves.
Finally, I felt that Benno suggests the ongoing serial potential of Pamprill's adventures before this particular tour with him is done. He might have ended the novel a bit earlier than he did, but he compels Pamprill forward into what could be construed as an entirely different adventure. My hope is that Benno is signaling to the reader that there will be more adventures to come beyond the covers of this curiously illustrated and sizable paperback volume. I sincerely hope so myself. All due respect to Kindle, but it seems somehow best that one read this novel first on paper, in a book, that has a spine. Just turning the pages allows you to participate in Benno's clever approach to storytelling. If there were an edition with un-cut pages, that would be the one to own. This book is a glorious read. And it is a read that deserves a glorious book to live in.