This wonderful novel didn't quite make the cut for our Debut Authors panel, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. A bit David Mitchell-esque, "The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms" follows our eponymous hero from his birth to his death in a small village in Yugoslavia, with much wandering in between. It takes until about halfway through the book to hit the crux of the novel: Johan Thoms is the driver of the car in which Archduke Franz Ferdinand fell victim to the shot heard round the world, thus launching World War I. Wracked by guilt which only increases as the horrors of WWI and then WWII grow, and convinced that he will be found and (rightfully, in his mind) blamed for causing millions upon millions of deaths, including that of his best friend, Thoms runs continually west, leaving behind his beloved Lorelei, who assiduously writes him a letter a day for decades.
The writing is fantastic, rich and nuanced and complex, hence the David Mitchell reference. The characters surrounding Thoms are delectable, with even the people who last only a few pages or less richly drawn without being overly described. This is a first novel, which Thornton says took seven years to write, and it shows in the extremely careful word selection. My only complaint is pacing. The first half mostly consists of a few months before the assassination, whereas the second half gallops through 1914 to the present day. I understand the decision, as it echoes Thoms' idyllic, slow-paced life before the unhappy day and then the madness into which he rather gleefully descends afterwards, but it's a little difficult for the reader to wrap her head around. Other than that, this is a truly fantastic first novel, and I very much look forward to Thornton's future work.