Nick Earls' latest novel could well annoy you, but the journey is well worth the effort

  • Empires, by Nick Earls. Vintage, $32.99.

This is a highly unusual novel which will engage most readers but will cause quite a bit of head-scratching.

There are five separate stories in five separate locations, from Alaska to Imperial Russia, from Napoleon's Vienna to Hong Kong. Earls takes readers to London in 1978, to Vienna in 1809 and finally to Hong Kong in 2019. The link is family. Specifically two brothers, Australians, one living in Alaska, the other in Hong Kong.

Readers have a ringside seat for Rupert Murdoch's intrusion into London newspapers, for Napoleon's acceptance of the Habsburg surrender of Vienna, and for an attempt to smuggle the Tsar's son and heir from revolutionary-likely Russia to safety in London.

The pace of the novel may seem frenetic. Actually it is quite domestic and it is beautifully written. Surprisingly, readers will care for the characters, perhaps none more so than the delightfully drawn, generous and engaging London theatrical impresario, George.

The main characters are two brothers, Simon and Michael, born 10 years apart with no other siblings. Perhaps only readers in such circumstances could fully understand the difficulties this imposes on the boys. Simon is dutiful, reading Michael to sleep every night from Swallows and Amazons. That would work for many, I suspect.

We meet Michael first, in Girdwood, Alaska, where he is recovering from a traumatic road accident and in a relatively new relationship. Readers will detect a brittleness in the relationship that may concern. Michael is a gentle man, a good man, though in real estate. His care and interest for a new widow who is selling her house, their shared love of history and teaching, their mutuality, is a highlight of the book. We meet Simon as a teenage boy in London, unhappy at having been relocated from Brisbane, but caring for his mother and his younger brother, with maturity and insight. He too, readers suspect, will also grow to be a good man.

The first two stories, therefore, are quite conventional, well-drawn and human. Nick Earls is particularly good at giving readers precise settings for his characters to operate in. No more so than his depiction of Vienna in the crisis of war and invasion. Readers may feel they are actually in the scene. Yet there is a point in the book when some may be inclined to sigh, yes it is thoroughly interesting and engaging, but what is the point? Keep reading, for the last pages reveal all that we need to know.

I did not see coming what I would soon know. Other readers may bring greater insight to their reading. But readers will always know in this book there is something there to be explained. Empires certainly repays the effort.

This story Globetrotting and time-travelling well worth it first appeared on The Canberra Times.