A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne – Book review

Late last year I read and loved my first book by John Boyne (A Ladder to the Sky). My friend then recommended A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom, so I had high hopes. The structure of this book certainly appealed to me for its uniqueness.

Told over 2,000 years, it follows the same people, their names and aspects of their situations amended to fall in line with the area of history the story is now being told from.

A celebration of creativity

So we start in Palestine, A.D 1, go through to South Korea, A.D 311, Egypt A.D 767, Norway, A.D. 1349 (you get the idea) through to present day – and beyond. We move chronologically through the years, moving to a different country every time the year progresses.

What remains constant is the lead unnamed character is alway in the creative arts and his story intertwines with some of the most famous works of art that exist (the Sistine Chapel for example) and I enjoyed this focus on the importance of the arts and their endurance and mark on history.

We follow our narrator as he marries and loses several wives, then ultimately embarks on a revenge quest.


While I enjoyed the scope of A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom and appreciate the research and planning it must have taken to write a book like this, some parts just didn’t work for me.

We travel to a lot of locations through history and at some points this felt a bit repetitive – not much happened to move the plot along but we had to switch locations anyway, it seemed.

It was also really hammered home how women have been treated like shit for a majority of history, which is true, but for a while in the middle section, it felt like the only thing this book had to tell us. The revenge plotline was anticlimactic for me too.

No one needs reminding of 2016

All of this was OK though as this was where the story was heading – taking us on this journey while celebrating art, craft and creativity. Then… the penultimate chapter is set in 2016 America on the eve of Trump’s election… for some reason. This felt so out of place with everything that had come before and had no context except to be a random pop at Trump supporters in a novel that really wasn’t like that in theme or context prior?

The final chapter set in the future (2082) on a space colony also felt rushed – or like a gimmick tagged on at the end.

I finished reading feeling slightly bemused at the rogue turn the book had taken in its final chapters. It went from celebrating the arts and humanity to saying we are all doomed really. An about turn that left me unsettled. Also, it feels like the narrator never passed through that gate of wisdom, he was always just standing outside them.

It also sadly lacked the intelligent asides, wit and charm that had so enamoured me to A Ladder to the Sky.

John Boyne has a great voice

So while A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom was not the one for me, I am going to crack on with more of John Boyne’s back catalogue as I really like his voice as an author and he does know how to tell a good story.

I know a lot of people do love this book, so I’d be really intrigued to hear what you think if you’ve read it!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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