I was hoping to get several more reviews written over the course of this past week but, as so often happens, life got in the way, so in lieu I’ll just offer a few quick thoughts about the two most recent book group discussions on Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
The group with which I read The Children Act were most exercised by whether or not the main character, Fiona Maye, was believable. For me, however, this wasn’t really the issue. I think I’ve reached the point where I just accept that McEwan has no idea how women think and behave and so I let that stand as a given and concentrate on what else I think he is concerned with. In this novel I was more interested in what it was he was trying to say about the law and the individual’s relationship with it. It seems clear to me that this is his primary interest. Why else start with what is an overt reference to Dickens’ Bleak House?
London. Trinity term one week old. Implacable June weather.
I decided in the end that what McEwan was trying to examine was the way in which, even in situations where our children’s wellbeing is at stake, we want to place the onus of decision onto an outside body, despite the fact that, in his opinion, this is to abdicate our personal responsibility. He offers several examples of families passing through the courts whose children are in need of medical or educational intervention and in each instance there is a sense of parental relief when the outcome is decided by someone else. However, he also provides examples of two such cases where the judge concerned has made a mistake that has had life long repercussions for the families involved and his ffinal* verdict on Fiona appears to be that she needs to recognise her responsibility to exercise judgment in her behaviour towards children outside of the trappings of the court as well as within.
There are a lot of seems and appears in that because I don’t think McEwan manages to make his point of view clear, possibly because, as so many of the group recognised, he doesn’t make Fiona herself believable. And, while I don’t disagree with the idea that we all need to take responsibility for the welfare of society in general and especially of children, I’m also bothered by an approach which seems to question the centrality of the judiciary. Yes, they sometimes get it wrong, but what happens if you take the law away? I have run across a number of literary instances recently that very strongly make the point that if the law is bent, neglected or personalised then the very pillars on which society stands are threatened. I’m teaching The Merchant of Venice this term and not only The Duke and Balthazar/Portia recognise the irretrievable damage that will be done to the State if Shylock is denied his bond, so too does Antonio, who very definitely has the most to lose. Then, it’s not long since I reviewed Claire McGowan’s latest Northern Ireland based novel, The Silent Dead, where the question of retaliatory ‘justice’ is foregrounded and in which the ffinal* judgment is that however fflawed* the justice system might sometimes be it is infinitely superior to what would happen if there was no system at all. And I have never been able to forget the conversation between Thomas More and his son-in-law in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons:
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.
We take decisions out of the hands of the law at our own peril, I think.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a much happier reading experience. I was so glad that this had been chosen because I have been trying to ffind* time to read more David Mitchell ever since being bowled over by The Bone Clocks, however, he is not a writer you can hurry and there just hasn’t been a large enough space when I could explore his earlier novels.
As far as Mitchell goes, this, I understand, is a comparatively straightforward narrative, although exploring a complexity of issues, mostly to do with the question of translation. Many of the main characters in the novel are interpreters who work for the Japanese state as linguistic go-betweens for the ruling powers and the Dutch traders of the late eighteenth century. But, while they may haltingly fffind* the words for a literal translation, interpreting the society behind the words is a very different matter. Even as the novel draws to a close the reader is left puzzling over a nation that can be so isolationist that it will not allow a son who is half Japanese and whose mother is dead to leave to be with his Dutch father. The writing is beautiful, the characterisation superb, but it is a solid read, so don’t embark on it unless you have the time to give it the attention it deserves.
I hope the forthcoming week is going to be slightly easier, especially as I’ve already got behind in my course on Dorothy L Sayers and could do with a few spare hours to catch up. I have discovered, however, that it is possible to have too much of a good thing even where books are concerned, and my reading of the Wimsey novels has slowed considerably. In particular, I fell foul of Five Red Herrings, which I seem to remember not being very keen on when I read the books the ffirst* time round. I’m now half way through Have His Carcase and should really do my best to ffinish* it over the weekend. What are your plans for a damp and soggy Sunday afternoon, I wonder?
N.B. I do know how to spell the words marked thus*, but the WordPress program is refusing to spell them with just one ‘f’. It’s two or nothing, so I have chosen to go for two. Is anyone else having this problem?