#BookReview The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan @KateHandheld

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I first shared my review of The Gap in the Curtain by John Buchan as part of my Buchan of the Month project in July 2020. Although I own a first edition of the book (unfortunately without a dustjacket) I couldn’t resist pre-ordering a copy of a new edition to be published by Handheld Press on 9th November 2021, especially since it has an introduction by Kate Macdonald, who has published widely on the life and works of John Buchan.

To pre-order or purchase a copy of The Gap in the Curtain, visit the Handheld Press website, You can read an updated version of my original review below.


The Gap in the CurtainAbout the Book

John Buchan (1875-1940), author of over 100 books including The Thirty-Nine Steps, was a stealth writer of supernatural and Weird fiction. His 1932 novel The Gap in the Curtain was his last full-length work devoted to exploring a supernatural theme: if you were able to see one year into the future, what would you do with that foreknowledge? And what would it do to you?

The novel tells the story of five country-house guests who are trained by the ailing Professor Moe, an Einsteinian mathematician who has devised a way of seeing into the future.  These five guests each gain one piece of knowledge from the experiment, and have to decide how to act on it. The episodes vary from high drama to social comedy, and use Buchan’s skill in writing political intrigue and adventure abroad. He uses the theme of precognition to show how Fate may not be escaped, no matter how we ingeniously we attempt to wriggle past it.

Format: Paperback (248 pages)                       Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 9th November 2021 [1932] Genre: Fiction


My Review

Written between March 1930 and February 1931, The Gap in the Curtain was published in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton on 7th July 1932 and in the US by The Riverside Press on 27th July 1932. The book is dedicated to his friends, Sybil and Lambert Middleton.

The Gap in the Curtain concerns the experiences of a group of guests at a country house party, including lawyer Sir Edward Leithen, who take part in an experiment conducted by the enigmatic Professor Moe. After a period of ‘training’ involving mental exercises and a special diet, they are each given a glimpse of the future by way of an item in The Times newspaper dated a year hence. Being a logical and down-to-earth fellow, Leithen sees nothing but a blank page. However, the other five who take part are profoundly affected by what they see. The different ways in which they react to the foreknowledge they have been granted over the next twelve months are recounted by Leithen.

For two of the guests, David Mayot and Arnold Tavanger, the insights relate to the worlds of politics and finance. The attempts by Mayot (described by Leithen as having ‘not a very generous allowance of brains’ and ‘as much magnetism as a pillar-box’) to second-guess how the political situation he saw might come about involves a good deal of tactical and frankly not very principled behind the scenes manoeuvring. The satirical nature of Buchan’s exposition of the positions of different political factions may have been more obvious to readers of the day.

What keen investor Arnold Tavanger sees in The Times leads him to embark on a journey across continents to secure what he believes will bring him huge financial rewards. His epic trip across Africa sees him take to the air with a pilot ‘who was one-fourth scientist and three-fourths adventurer, and who did not value his on or anybody else’s life at two pins’. They encounter thunderstorms and at one point end up with two lizards and a snake in the fuselage! In the end though, Tavanger’s experiences lead him to conclude ‘Our ignorance of the future has been widely ordained of Heaven. For unless man were to be like God and know everything, it is better that he should know nothing. If he knows one fact only, instead of profiting by it he will assuredly land in the soup’.

Reggie Daker’s insight into what he will be undertaking a year hence takes him completely by surprise, being the last thing on earth he would consider doing. However, over the course of the next few months, the reader witnesses the influence of the attractive Verona Cortal and her family on the rather compliant by nature Reggie. Says Leithen, ‘He had the air of a smallish rabbit caught in a largish trap. But it was a stoical rabbit, for to me he made no complaint’. Eventually, fate lends a hand to provide Reggie with a means of escape.

The final two guests – Robert Goodeve and Captain Charles Ottery – both see articles in The Times concerning themselves that are much more profound in nature. It is in their two stories that Buchan really addresses the notions of predestination and free will. For one of the characters, the fate he is presented with turns him into a haunted man. It confirms a subconscious belief he has always held that his is a family whose lives are destined to end tragically, that ‘They have spirit without fortitude’. For the other, it provokes a courageous response to the hand dealt him, helped by the love of a good woman. “What concerned him was how to pass the next eight months without disgracing his manhood”. It seems clear which of the two responses Buchan admires most. Not only because of the way the last story ends but also because it contains a reference to one of Buchan’s most cherished books, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. “He had come out of the Valley of the Shadow to the Delectable Mountains.”

The book received some warm reviews upon publication, notably from J.B. Priestley who praised Buchan’s ‘gallant versatility’ and recommended it as a book that could be read ‘with excitement and profit’. Janet Adam Smith, Buchan’s first biographer, reports that The Gap in the Curtain had sold 78,000 copies up to 1960.

David Daniell, author of The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan (Nelson, 1975), describes The Gap in the Curtain as a ‘satirical’ book in which Buchan takes aim at the world of international finance and politics. Ursula Buchan, John Buchan’s granddaughter and author of Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan (Bloomsbury, 2019), suggests the ‘brilliant, lengthy and disillusioned description of British politics at that time’ reflects Buchan’s own experiences as a Member of Parliament. Andrew Lownie, author of John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier (Constable, 1995), feels that, although the idea of being able to look into the future was not new, Buchan was able to give it a new spin. He also finds it significant that the action of the book takes place at Easter citing its exploration of the redemptive power of love, the nature of Free Will and the concept of predestination.

In her fascinating introduction to the new edition, Kate Macdonald comments that Buchan used the supernatural ‘not to explore other realms, but to agreeably frighten his readers, in highly-skilled entertainment’.

In three words: Inventive, entertaining, thoughtful

Try something similar: The Watcher by the Threshold by John Buchan

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John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over 100 books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

#BookReview The Long Traverse by John Buchan #ReadJB2020

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The Long TraverseAbout the Book

Negog, an old Native American Indian, uses his magic to provide Donald, a Canadian boy with visions of seven significant moments in the history and heritage of Canada.

Format: Hardcover (254 pages)                Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 10th November 1941 Genre: Nonfiction, History

Find The Long Traverse on Goodreads


My Review

My Buchan of the Month for December is The Long Traverse. It was unfinished at the time of John Buchan’s death on 11th February 1940 so was completed by his wife Susan and published posthumously in 1941. The book was titled Lake of Gold in the US and Canada. It contains illustrations by John Morton-Sale, whose work also appeared in books by J. M. Barrie and Beverley Nicholls.

John Buchan described the book as a Canadian Puck of Pook’s Hill. The role of Puck in Rudyard Kipling’s original is played in The Long Traverse by Negog, a member of what we would today call the First Nations people. The book consists of eight stories, interspersed with poems, plus an epilogue added by Buchan’s wife based on notes he left for a final story.

20201202_142426-1The first story, ‘The Long Traverse’, introduces the reader to Donald, a young Canadian boy whose interests lie more in Hollywood movies and outdoor pursuits than in the study of Latin, Mathematics or History – as his recent school report shows! The reader also meets Negog, a Cree Indian whose people originated from the southwest corner of Hudson Bay but moved eastward towards Labrador. Negog reveals the concept of ‘the long traverse’, a journey into the past that can be viewed in the ‘Lake of Gold’ when conditions are right and by use of traditional magic.

The story ‘The Gold of Sagne’ captures Donald’s boyish enthusiasm for fishing and mineral collecting and describes his first experience of the visions conjured up by Negog in the Lake of Gold. Donald sees, reflected in the water, scenes showing how his treasured possession, a stone with flakes of gold in it, was passed from hand to hand through the centuries. “He was looking at a motion picture, one without captions. He did not need any explanatory words, for he seemed to recognize each scene and to know precisely what it meant.”

In ‘The Wonderful Beaches’, the setting sun on the water is transformed into a vision of Viking long-ships setting off from Norway, sailing across the Atlantic and arriving in Canada many centuries before Columbus. I liked that when Donald, a little confused, asks “What people came here first?”, Negog replies “My people have been here from the beginning”.

‘Cadieux’ is the thrilling tale of Cadieux de Courville, a coureur de bois or independent French-Canadian trader who travels up and down river trading furs. Donald witnesses an epic journey in which Cadieux and fellow traders are pursued downstream by Iroquois and only a heroic act allows some of them to survive.

In ‘The Man who dreamed of Islands’, Donald has a vision of one of his ancestors who, employed as a voyageurs by one of the trading companies, finds himself drawn to exploration rather than trading. He sets off to find a route through the mountains to the Pacific coast, travelling on foot and by canoe. Donald witnesses the previously unknown result of this expedition which, if true, would predate the exploits of a more famous Canadian explorer.

‘Big Dog’ depicts the skirmishes between two warring Indian tribes, one of which possess horses (the ‘big dogs’ of the title) and the other to whom horses are unknown and who are forced to seek out other means to defend themselves.

‘Whitewater’ is another action-packed story of adventure.  Whilst observing the log drive down river, Donald hears exciting tales from the loggers of navigating white water rapids by canoe or raft.  These trigger a vision of an Orkney man, Magnus Sinclair, who has to overcome his fear of water in order to take up a role as a voyageur.  Having learned to swim, the river is transformed for Magnus from a menace to a ‘playmate’ and he undertakes an epic river journey westward.

In the final story, ‘The Faraway People’, Donald listens avidly to dinner table stories of ‘secret and wonderful things in the very far North’ and witnesses evidence of the existence of a fabled ancient race.

In my earlier blog post introducing the book, I mentioned that one of Buchan’s reasons for writing The Long Traverse was his desire to improve upon what he considered the rather dull manner in which Canadian history was taught in schools. The book certainly contains lively scenes of adventure but it seemed to me the stories were more illustrative than factual. For example, I was left unsure which of the characters existed in real life and which were fictitious. Therefore, although The Long Traverse encapsulates the spirit of the country John Buchan had grown to love during his time as Governor-General of Canada, I’m not sure it would help a Canadian pupil pass a history examination! However, I’m sure it would have made an excellent companion to more traditional history books.

In three words: Spirited, imaginative, adventure

Try something similar: The Last Secrets by John Buchan

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John BuchanAbout the Author

John Buchan (1875 – 1940) was an author, poet, lawyer, publisher, journalist, war correspondent, Member of Parliament, University Chancellor, keen angler and family man.  He was ennobled and, as Lord Tweedsmuir, became Governor-General of Canada.  In this role, he signed Canada’s entry into the Second World War.   Nowadays he is probably best known – maybe only known – as the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps.  However, in his lifetime he published over one hundred books: fiction, poetry, short stories, biographies, memoirs and history.

You can find out more about John Buchan, his life and literary output by visiting The John Buchan Society website.

Buchan of the Month 2020