In 1988, 15 years before the release of the now-iconic “Da Vinci Code” came Katherine Neville’s historic masterpiece, “The Eight.”
At the time, Neville, having spent nearly 20 years as an employee of OPEC, the Algerian government, IBM and a cornucopia of other companies, drew on her wealth of experience to write what was then a unique form of fiction – a suspense thriller simultaneously bridging several timelines, containing stories within stories.
It concurrently takes place in the 1970s and the 1790s – there’s that pesky eight again – which constantly resurfaces throughout the novel in one form or another, much like the symbol of infinity that it represents.
On New Year’s Eve of 1970, eponymous computer expert Catherine Velis hides away in a previous employer’s expansive offices, delaying her fate. Days ago, in justly standing up to an overbearing and ethically questionable colleague, she had apparently discredited her sense of loyalty to the team and was now being trained for a new job in Algeria – as a computer consultant for OPEC.
Meanwhile, in the 1790s, two novice nuns of France’s fictional Montglane Abbey are caught in the middle of a desperate attempt to save an ancient chess set from the bloodthirsty revolutionaries – a mythical devise that was said to have belong to Charlemagne and had thereafter been named the Montglane Service.
And so the hunt, spanning centuries begins.
As Cat reaches Algeria, the plot fully unfolds, but not before meeting the capricious Lily, the mysteriously alluring Solarin and the hauntingly present Nim. At the same time, Marielle and Valentine (the aforementioned apprentices) are being hunted for their presumed knowledge of the dangerously coveted service. It is precisely this tangled and thoroughly intricate web of plot that showcases Neville’s shining strength as a writer. If certain twists make little sense, it seldom matters, because the novel is that riveting. It is certainly not without its flaws, however.
While the prose is incredibly witty, with subtle sarcasm and wry wisdom thrown in casually during Cat’s first-person diatribes, it, too, is far from perfect.
These primarily manifest in the apparent overconfidence in the main character – Katherine’s, not Catherine’s.
Although she is undeniably clever, Cat’s charisma seems so potent that literally each person she encounters is highly impressed with her, with many – who happen to be in enviably positions of power worldwide – seemingly falling in love with her in one form or another.
She is constantly complimented on her ingenuity, as are many of the novel’s leading men and ladies, which would not be alarming if it didn’t come across as a form of literary arrogance. After all, the book’s author had to think of these brilliantly cunning schemes, first.
Furthermore, although containing commendable realism for the most part, many scenes toward the plot’s end veer on the edge of the ridiculous, particularly those of the daring and not-so-plausible escapes.
That said, however, it may be wholeheartedly deserved as the craft-master Neville weaved a tale so full of wit and intrigue that it’s virtually impossible to put down. Intellectually mature and thoroughly researched, it spans nearly as many locations as decades, taking its heroines from the concrete jungles of New York City, to the red desert at Tassili to the beauty and terror of eighteenth century Paris.
A stalwart guest on the journey is Neville’s impeccable wordplay, lending just a bit more believability to the apparent natural aphrodisiac that is Cat Velis.
Perhaps Neville’s premiere, international bestseller may not stand the rigid tests of time, but it’s more than held its own for over two decades. The mystery is in the numbers.