Review: The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

DSCF1448As a general rule, I like to keep my reading quite varied. By that I mean that I like to flit between the genres, flicking from literary fiction and newer releases back to the classics which remain unread on my shelves. Even though I am a mood based reader, this works quite well for me, as it is naturally the way my mood tends to fall. So, finding myself craving to read another classic, I delved into my favourite Penguin English Library editions, and randomly decided on The Man Who Was Thursday.

I have never read anything by G. K. Chesterton, the man famous for the fictional priest-detective, Father Brown, so I was quite unsure what I would make of his work. Going by the blurb, the book is described as following Gabriel Syme, an undercover policeman sent to infiltrate the Central Anarchist Council. Finding himself voted to the position of ‘Thursday’, Syme must delve deeper into the world of his enemies, all the while threatened by their intimidating leader, Sunday. This is a book which has been described as a spy book, a metaphysical thriller and a political comedy, so all in all I was feeling pretty optimistic.

I felt that the start of the novel almost betrays you. It draws the focus towards poets, and poetical views of life, placing the character of Syme and another man, Gregory, into confliction. There is almost a battle of wits between the two ‘poets’ as they both argue for their respective views concerning anarchy. Gregory argues that ‘the man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen’ (p. 4). Syme, on the other hand, argues against the chaos, preferring order.  I felt some parts of the opening were quite pretentious, although I did enjoy the initial set up and the ideas it presented.

Things move quickly from here, with Syme infiltrating the Central Anarchist Council and finding himself swept up into a world of dynamite and bombs. The pacing is kept consistent throughout with the plot moving swiftly forwards, and I did enjoy the first half of the novel. There was a measure of suspense and intrigue which kept my interest, but sadly I felt that the novel then began to flag and go downhill very quickly. I felt that the plot became quite ludicrous and lost the original suspense, with many of the moments becoming very predictable. What had started out as a good old fashioned detective/spy adventure quickly mutated into something which seemed to have no relevance to the original plot.

Despite this, there were certain parts of the novel which I think have been well executed. The subtler moments of comedy were well planned and capitalised well on our British sense of humour. Although, even this began to go past the limits of comedy and into the realms of absurd, with a certain elephant chase springing to mind! I did also enjoy the scene in which Syme initially meets the other members of the Anarchist Council, and the ways in which he describes them. He looks strongly at their physicality, noting that there was something not quite right about them, something uncanny which revealed their terrible Anarchist views. I read this as almost delving into the realms of phrenology. The metaphor Syme fixes upon is that ‘they all looked as men of fashion and presence would look, with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror’ (p. 48). Those who have already read this book will, I think, agree that this was a humorous little moment which cleverly hints at what’s to come.

Yet even these enjoyable instances could not change my overall opinion on this novel. I felt that the characters were neither likeable nor dislikeable, but instead rather two dimensional and quite dull. Even the large character of Sunday, a man shrouded in mystery, did nothing to piqué my interest. Additionally, I felt the ending was very disappointing and a great let down to what had started as such a promising book. It left me frustrated and confused as to why elements such as religion had come into the forefront. Even now, looking back, I am not quite sure what the ending was supposed to have added or even meant.

In conclusion, I feel as though I did not really understand or quite ‘get’ the purpose of this short book. I can’t help but think, what was the point? A part of me does think that perhaps I would have enjoyed this more if I had studied it in University, examining more of the subtler meanings in greater detail. Yet even then, I do not think this would be a book I would want to pick up again. All in all, I was greatly underwhelmed.

Has anyone read this book? Please tell me your opinions!

Publisher: Penguin

Rating: 2*/5*

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