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The Pages review: A book within a book

In Hugo Hamilton’s new book, the narrator is a 1924 Joseph Roth novel

The Pages
Author: Hugo Hamilton
ISBN-13: 978-0008451660
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

What can books teach us beyond the information they hold on their pages? How do we remember our darkest or private moments? Or worse, what happens if we choose to forget?

These questions all emerge in Hugo Hamilton’s new novel. Told through the narrative voice of a book (Joseph Roth’s 1924 novel Rebellion), Hamilton weaves the documented past of a family across generations, revealing how secrets and (mis)information can shape our lives and the future.

Rescued from a Nazi book-burning in Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square in 1933, Roth’s Rebellion was pulled from the burning attack on “dangerous” literature by the grandfather of Lena. The Pages opens with Lena travelling to Germany from present-day New York, leaving her partner, Mike, behind to assist his mother in a dispute with neighbours over homestead boundaries. Lena’s odyssey is to follow a map found within her grandfather’s book, to uncover stories from the physical and emotional ruins of a time before.

As with many of Hamilton’s works, from memoir to fiction, ever-present is the skilful weaving of multiple voices and identities. The plight of those crossing borders, seeking new futures or an escape from the past, reminds us of recent migration tragedies, from the Mediterranean to the Mexican-US border.


As time splits between present and past, from Roth’s wife’s institutionalisation in a mental asylum to an assault outside a present-day nightclub, we see various reconstructions of the past, retold as if collected in a vast archive: “This was the only trace left behind . . . Their story turned into archaeology.”

There is Orwellian prescience in Hamilton’s novel – from the toxic male aggression of Uli Bogdanov, who stalks Madina, a young musician, at her concerts, and when spurned retreats to the connected darkness of incel chatrooms where right-wing ideology is a private release in place of his failed affair; to a Chechen journalist murdered in her apartment building on Vladimir Putin’s birthday.

We live in a hyper-connected and digital society. The pages of our lives today may be measured in bytes and live in the cloud, but Hamilton’s novel shows us warnings of what we risk when we choose to ignore the fissures of dark pasts reappearing today.