The narrator of Patrick McGuinness’s first novel, “The Last Hundred Days,” arrives in Bucharest during the final months of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania with a strange sense of optimism. This is despite being surrounded by corruption, paranoia and, as the novel progresses, ever-mounting danger to his friends and himself.
Sitting in a restaurant, “I felt two things,” the narrator recalls, “two sensations that seemed at odds, but which took me to extremes of myself: a sense of the world closing in, tightening up, an almost physical sensation of claustration; and something else: exhilaration, a feeling for the possible, something expanding around me. . . . My life seemed full of possibility.”
Longlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize and chosen as Wales Book of the Year, this novel is full of ideas, characters and circumstances that are at odds with one another. McGuinness, who lived in Romania when Ceausescu was in power, has created a coming-of-age story with a vivid historical backdrop — the Berlin Wall coming down, the uprising in Romania, the shooting of Ceausescu and his wife — as well as an exploration of how people operate in a totalitarian society.
McGuinness’s narrator, a young academic, enjoys the access to different classes of society that outsiders sometimes are accorded in a foreign country. He eats in a well-stocked restaurant frequented by Communist Party officials, while regular citizens queue for basics. He sleeps with the daughter of a high-ranking politician, helps a former party leader leak his memoirs to Paris and helps several young people illegally cross the border into Yugoslavia.
When a friend is killed, though, the conflicts become more personal and the novel grows more tense. McGuinness explores the ethical balancing act people must perform when the rules are skewed. In this world, characters sometimes must believe someone even when they don’t trust him.
Also a poet, the sharply observant McGuinness has filled his novel with quick, witty descriptions of people, places and situations. If the narrator’s story is sometimes overshadowed by its historical setting, perhaps that’s only right, given these earth-shaking events. McGuinness does more, however, than explore how people acted in this now transformed country. He’s captured the way corruption and tyranny warp behavior in any society.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between” and runs the advanced creative and critical writing program at the University of Winchester in England.
The last hundred days
By Patrick McGuinness
Bloomsbury. 377 pp. Paperback, $17