Terrouge E-zine Archives
Empire of the Ants and Franky Furbo
By: Geo Holms
Dual Badger Reading Corner Review
Once the existence of a fantastic twist ending in any book is announced, I shy away because once the existence of that twist ending is known, the whole of the book is read in debate to what that twist ending might be. Which, depending upon the book, mars the reading experience and throws the reader off-kilter. This is why I remain wary of saying that the books this month have twist endings. What I can say is that no matter what I reveal in the review of these two books nothing I can say will actually spoil the ending. How these endings settle is the trick.
The books I review this time around are Empire of the Ants by Bernard Werber and Franky Furbo by William Warton. Two starkly different books that each hold a sense of detached wonder; a curiosity as to what is lurking in the backstage of the plots, waiting for the big reveal as the story comes to a close.
Empire of the Ants, similar to other books I've reviewed, is another display of naturalistic fiction, but is unlike any you have ever read before. This is a story that intertwines two plots: the Wellses, a family that has moved into an apartment inherited from an eccentric uncle. They are also left with a warning: "Don't go into the cellar." The second plot follows the lives of a small group of russet ants, a few in a society of millions. These ants follow the faint trail of a mystery within their ranks. How these plots are related as they go their separate ways is for you to discover.
One thing is assured; when there is a warning, "never go down into the cellar," there is bound to be an ensuing conflict that cause the warning to be ignored. There is a grim unknown evil down in that cellar; an evil that seems to leak onto the page with each detail revealed, each cliffhanger placed. The reader is told only as much as they read, with little hint of what's going on …
The russet ants' story is more of a quest, a warrior and a queen seeking answers to mysteries underground. They explore the deep corners of the society, investigating clues while ant activity carries on around them. Never have I seen such an intricate and intriguing view of ant society and interaction. The balance between ant fact and plot narrative is fantastic. The story sends characters with numbers for names and only flickers of action or reaction into deep and relatable personalities , no matter how foreign and strange the world they live in might be. I found myself engrossed with their limited but logical point of view of the world around them and their communal way of debating disagreements.
Based upon both these plots, I can't with conviction place these books solely in naturalistic fiction. Empire of the Ants is a suspense mystery novel with romance and thriller elements, along with anthropomorphic fantasy and science fiction. It mixes everything together brilliantly, plodding ever forward. The tale gets grimier and eerier the more is revealed, both about the cellar and the details of insect wars and habits. The fact that this was a French novel translated into English makes the feat all the more impressive. This is a tale that echoes its evil song long after the final page is read.
But what is reality? How does one discover the difference between fact and fiction? I, for one, am pretty sure I have a sense of reality. I know that my characters are not real and won't literally bite me on the leg with rabid abandon. Memories, however, can be tricky things. I can think back to events, and details and faces are switched about until, even though I'm certain I remember it perfectly, a video tape of the event would send me for a loop.
So we come to the story Franky Furbo by William Wharton. I can honestly tell you, this is the most absurd book I have ever read. I hate saying that, because after reading that, you will read the book, poking under every nook and cranny, wondering where the absurdities lie. The plot is the main tip-off. This is the story of an aging man, William, reflecting back on an event during World War II which changed his life forever. After a bombardment, an American soldier (William) and a German soldier are saved by a talking fox named Franky Furbo, who nurses them back to health. Franky Furbo is a magical fox; he can change his size, his shape, he can speak all the languages of the world, and he can practically fly.
Now William - many years later and living in a small house in Italy with his wife and the youngest of his four children - is faced with the fact that no one in his family believes this story. So William decides he must go on a journey to find if his story is true, or if Franky is just a hallucination of a war-scarred mind.
Franky Furbo makes use of basic human thoughts; thoughts of what someone goes through when everything they believe in has been challenged, of the struggle to keep one's sanity in the face of insanity, and of what humanity truly means. These are not light themes to be dealt with, and the book handles it rather well. As William considers his life you can watch as his arguments unravel before his eyes, leaving him more lost and confused than ever.
The scenes of William with his family and on his journey are interspersed by the stories of Franky Furbo; first William's memories of World War II, and then excerpts from a book William wrote years ago about the adventures of the educated fox. These parts of the book hold a 'storybook' quality, a certain narrative tone that sets a children's book mood. The accompanying illustrations are odd, but they accomplish the point and keep with the rest of the book's oddness.
The novel also makes an odd use of fonts. Instead of having many 'she/he said', each character has a particular font they use. It felt at times like I was reading a play, broken here and there by the narrator's thoughts. This practice was used to its full potential in the plot to represent not even different characters, but alternate dialects. Don't ask how, that's part of the oddness.
And that brings us to the end. No, I'm not going to be much of a spoilerist in this review. Either you'll like the ending, or you'll hate the ending. Regardless, I can bet that during the last few chapters you will say, "What?…What?!…WHAT?!" or something along those lines.
In all, Franky Furbo is perhaps the most absurd book I have ever read. Its view of the struggle for sanity is impeccable, and it has some ridiculous ideas that I never could have expected. Throughout the whole book, you wonder what is actually going on, and I bet that you might guess, but you won't figure out the truth behind it all until the very end.
Of the two, Empire of the Ants is definitely the better novel and the most engaging read. Franky Furbo lacks a certain quirk that would give it a slightly more enjoyable edge that it lacks. But, it can be said of both, it's the ending that counts.