Book Reviews

Breakfast with the Borgias – DBC Pierre – Book Review

Breakfast with the Borgias

Breakfast with the Borgias by DBC Pierre

Review by Conor O’Carroll

The story starts with Ariel, a computer scientist, and Zeva, his student, who have arranged an illicit meeting at an international conference on informatics in Amsterdam. However, when Ariel’s plane is grounded in London and he is booked in to a seaside resort guesthouse. This is probably his worst nightmare as there is no phone, mobile signal or internet connection. This is computer science hell; to be completely separated from the virtual world, Ariel’s comfort zone. Meanwhile Zeva, cutoff from Ariel, waits for his arrival in Amsterdam.

Here he meets a rather dysfunctional family, the Borders. The family consists of Margot, her son Leonard and his daughter Olivia and son Jack. The matriarch Margot is confined to a wheelchair and plays on the emotions of others. Leonard a buff character on the verge of a big deal. Jack is a small boy usually in the corner with face stuck into a video game. In addition, there is a another ‘daughter’ Gretchen who appears to be mentally ill. It is Gretchen that holds the only phone that can get a signal for communicating with the outside world. They are, apart from Ariel, the only residents in the hotel. There is a double meaning here as it transpires that they live in the hotel as Margot claims she inherited this from her father, the original owner. Her brother Clifford runs the hotel assisted by Rob. This seemingly mundane family hides a secret that is not apparent until the end of the book.

Ariel is presented as a person who thinks in logical progression and predictability according to the laws of classical physics. However the Borders challenge his view of reality by introducing the uncertainties of quantum physics to Ariel. Olivia latches on to Ariel as does Gretchen, with dire consequences. Eva becomes almost a peripheral character as the novel develops however she is always there if only by Ariel’s inability to contact her.

At one level this is a classical horror story where the main character is drawn into a strange situation away from his normal life with devastating consequences. At another it is a really interesting take on the separation between the world of the living that that of the dead based on the interface of the classical and quantum worlds in physics.The classical world is the one around us well described by classical physics as developed by Newton and Einstein. This description simply does not work at the atomic scale (at scales of one billion billionth of a metre). That is a truly bizarre world where particles or photons of light can influence one another when completely separated and teleportation as in Star Trek can actually be achieved. In the quantum experience the observation of an object changes it; this is real but not part of our common experience of the world.

The author does take a very specific view of classical physics and does overplay the simplicity. Our world is actually highly unpredictable with small changes in any situation leading to highly diverse and chaotic situations. Einstein’s four dimensional intertwined space and time is based on classical physics and leads to the phenomenon of the black hole, arguably the strangest object in the universe.

Back in the novel the attempt by Ariel to contact the outside world become ever more desperate as do Zeva’s attempts to contact him. Only towards the end of the book does the true nature of what has happened unfold. The author does stretch the analogies with the classical and quantum worlds but it is an original way of looking at the worlds of the living and the dead. The story is unpredictable and that makes it a good read.

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