The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden

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Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 720

Foden’s award-winning first novel received high praise from critics for its fascinating topic as well as for the deft manner in which its author handled the story’s ethical issues and the sometimes gruesome details surrounding the violent rule of Uganda’s Idi Amin. Peter Wolfe, writing in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, calls the novel “stunning” and “surehanded,” and according to Margaret Flanagan in Booklist, the novel is “packed with moral ambiguity [and] the dynamic narrative provides a vivid portrait of one of the most surrealistic despots in modern African history.”

Chris King, writing in Newsday, is not as enamored of Foden’s narrative. King complains that, while many episodes including Amin are “hilarious,” they eventually become predictable. Foden’s use of childhood flashbacks “is a dubious narrative decision that weakens the satire,” according to King. King compares the book to the novel Forrest Gump, in which “a fool has been superimposed unconvincingly over some very important history, trivializing everything he touches.” What works in Winston Groom’s novel does not work in Foden’s novel, writes King, because Gump understood his limitations while Garrigan is simply “awash in existential self-pity.”

Many reviewers have found Garrigan’s character unlikable and confusing. In his review in The Australian, Tom Gilling calls Garrigan “a difficult figure to sympathize with or care about,” one having “little sense of personality.” Michael Upchurch, however, appreciates Garrigan’s character and notes in the New York Times Book Review that “therein lies the admirable risk” Foden has taken in the novel. Merle Rubin in The Christian Science Monitor suggests that Foden has created in Garrigan a character whose weaknesses hit a little too close to home for some readers—“a well-meaning individual who becomes an accomplice to evil.”

Because the novel includes historical figures as characters, many critics have focused on Foden’s accuracy and on his use of history in a book that is not presented as a factual account. In a review in History Today, Richard Rathbone praises Foden for his careful research that makes the book “terrifying real.” Rathbone views the book as not only an entertaining read but also “a brilliant analysis of the essence of a brutal dictator.” Upchurch admires how the novel’s fictional and historical aspects blend smoothly even though the novel “occasionally carries the whiff of the library stacks” and heavily reflects the journalistic background of its author. However, Christopher Hess argues in the Austin Chronicle that, by the second half of the novel, the plot is forced into “easy devices and contrived twists” by the excessive use of historical fact.

Considering the book as a fictional memoir, David Haynes, writing in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, lauds the use of realistic news clippings and journal entries that help Foden’s audience “believe that what we are reading really happened.” However convincing much of Foden’s novel may be, though, Haynes is less enthusiastic about whether Garrigan’s character is truly a man who would not leave Uganda when the going got tough. For the novel to work completely, Haynes argues, Foden must create a believable scenario in which Garrigan’s utter naïveté leads him to remain in Uganda, but he does not succeed in this. “Foden can’t quite create a convincing balance between Garrigan’s guilelessness and the character’s well-informed, historically accurate telling of the story,” he asserts.

Many critics have praised Foden’s novel for its similarities to the works of other Western authors famous for writing about Africa. Wolfe sees the influence of Graham Greene in the novel, as it is filled with corrupt leaders and spies and takes place in the third world. A number of reviewers have compared the novel with those of Joseph Conrad. Kirkus Reviews finds “Conradian tones” in the novel and Hess calls Garrigan’s experiences in the novel “Conradesque.”

Reviews such as one that appeared in Publishers Weekly have noted the satirical qualities of the novel. Walter Abish, writing for the Los Angeles Times, associates Foden’s writing style with the satirical and farcical style of Evelyn Waugh’s novels. “The introspective Garrigan experiences a failure of nerve that Waugh used with great relish,” he notes. Gilling also sees similarities between Waugh and Foden but believes that Foden “has a more solemn purpose” in his work.

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