Book Review

Madness is Better than Defeat by Ned Beauman

madness is better...

Madness is Better than Defeat is one of the most difficult novels to write a review for that I’ve come across since starting Jo’s Book Blog.  Not because it’s bad book – I thoroughly enjoyed it – but because I haven’t a clue where to start.

In 1938, two rival expeditions set off for a lost Mayan temple in the jungles of Honduras, one intending to shoot a screwball comedy on location there, the other to disassemble the temple and ship it back to New York. A seemingly endless stalemate ensues, and twenty years later a rogue CIA agent sets out to exploit it as a geopolitical pawn – unaware that the temple is the locus of grander conspiracies than anyone could have imagined.

Showcasing the anarchic humour, boundless imagination and unparalleled prose of one of the finest writers of his generation, this is a masterful novel that teases, entertains and dazzles in equal measure.

To say that there’s a lot going on in Madness is Better than Defeat is something of an understatement.  CIA, conspiracies, Mayan temples and Gods, a Nazi, jungle survival, hallucinogenics, Hollywood, and an octopus1 to name but a few elements – this novel has plenty of seemingly unrelated threads, yet Beauman manages to bring them together to create one highly inventive novel that, whilst not entirely straightforward, manages not to be too confusing either.

Told from multiple perspectives and jumping around in time, the overarching story is that of Zonulet, a former CIA agent who is seeking evidence within the large information stores of the agency in Virginia to support his testimony.  The content of his testimony isn’t entirely clear at the beginning of the novel, although the reader is aware that it does in some way relate to the events at the temple, but there is more to it than that, some of which doesn’t become clear until much later in the novel.  I say that’s the overarching story, but there’s another layer to this.  There’s an idea posited early on as the Whelt rule (Whelt being the director of the film to be produced at the temple) which comes to take on greater significance as the novel progresses, and I suspect that, if one were to study it closely enough, Beauman’s novel also conforms to this rule.  It’s all a bit meta, but I’d love for this to be true, although I’d need to read it again to prove the point.

Anyone who has read Beauman’s previous novels will know that he likes to sneak Nazis into the plot is an extremely intelligent, talented, and often experimental author, and this latest novel is no exception.  And I love the humour that he injects into his writing – it’s not laugh out loud funny, but you’ll find clever witticisms in his work that give it a little something extra.

Madness is Better than Defeat will be published by Sceptre on 24 August.  Many thanks to Ruby Mitchell, Sceptre and BookBridgr for the review copy.

Rating: ★★★★☆

1 Ok – the octopus is only in one scene, and it’s quite early in the novel, but I’ll never look at one the same way again having read this.


    1. It really is. I was a little worried that it was going to be too confusing, but whilst it’s complicated, I didn’t feel lost at any point. I’d be interested to know what you made it once you’ve read it 🙂

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