The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms
By Ian Thornton
Published by The Friday Project
Available in paperback and ebook
Ian Thornton's debut novel, The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms is more than just a novel with hints of historical WWI truth. This is a novel about the bonds of friendship, a love story and the way people will go to many lengths to run away from reality.
This is a story that spans over one hundred years, covering all of the 20th Century. At the start of the novel, the protagonist, Johan Thoms is an old man with a plan - he must go back in time. Slowly he reveals his childhood and the tales of near death experience when he was a boy with a deer and his student days of booze and sex but this is not want he wants to go back in time for. It is not to re-live the days of him being a child genius at chess but to stop the outbreak of World War I because contrary to common understanding, he started World War I and has the deaths of millions on his conscience.
In June 1914, at the last minute Johan swaps with the usual chauffeur and is given the privilege to drive Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia through the city. However, this moment of great importance is hindered by him driving down a dead-end side street and his inability to reverse a car. A gunman stands and takes a shot and the rest as they say is history. Convinced he ruins everything he touches he flees, leaving behind the love of this life, Lorelei, his family and his university career. He goes on the run as the Great War unfolds around him. Each year the burden of guilt becomes greater.
The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms reminded me of a less superior version of Laurent Binet's HHhH and it also reminded me of Daniel Wallace's Big Fish with the way it explores the concept of truth, the retelling of history and the way stories form our lives. Johan's adventures across Europe have him bumping into Orwell and Hemingway in Spain during the Civil War and hiding out in the English countryside as he tries to maintain a grip on reality.
Other reviewers have complained that Johan doesn't develop as a character after his unfortunate involvement in the outbreak of World War I but I think he does. Johan has a constant battle with his conscience and is unable to untangle himself from the guilt. He must learn to either face up to the guilt or let it slowly eat away at him.
Johan's adventures through Europe are broken up with letters from Lorelei and her search to find Johan. I would quite like there to be a sequel to The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms and I would want it to explore Lorelei's search and her life in 1920s America.
If you like books routed in history, enjoyed HHhH and Big fish then this is the book for you. Its a great story. I'm looking forward to reading Thornton's next book.
You can buy The Great and Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms from your favourite bookshop.
I was kindly sent a copy of the book by the publisher.