As Henry Perowne sits in his Merc (silver, 500S) and turns on the stereo what he hears is the sound of sustained applause. This could the ironic adjudication of the gods who are preparing a dismal fate for him. When an author has given everything to a protagonist it is only Greek justice that it should be taken away in as painful and as surprising a manner as possible. Balance must be restored.
Let me do the list: 48 years old H.P. is a neurosurgeon of renown who lives in a 7,000 square foot mansion in the heart of London. This is the family property of his wife whose father the renowned poet John Gramatticus is living in the family's château in France. His wife with whom he has a wonderful relationship is a lawyer attached to a newspaper. Theo his 18 year old son is a John Mayall in the egg who has received the accolade of Ry Cooder at one of his gigs. Daisy the daughter is 25 and is just about to publish her first book of poetry having previously won the Hawthornden prize. She is due to come back from Paris that night. Henry Perowne enjoys vigorous conjugal felicity regularly, plays a good squash game and runs a creditable half marathon. A direct hit on the house from a small asteroid might be in order.
What has Henry Perowne worried is the state of the world in February 2003 the day of the giant demonstration against the proposed Iraq war. You remember that, Blix, WMOD, Saddam the Bad, Not in Our Name. The novel is, and here the reviewers follow closely the bullet points on the publicist's hand out, a post 9.11 one. It's not that of course, it's a post Iraq War II one with retrospective justification for the mess that bleeds and bleeds. There was an inevitability about it then and a lot of ill-informed and lied-to people, I include myself in this, thought that it might be, on balance, a good idea, to take Saddam out. That seems to have been wrong. H.P. represents enlightenment man with values that are rational and balanced, erring slightly on the scientistic side perhaps, who feels that his world is now the prey of fundamentalists of all persuasions.
What then is in the novel by way of writing? Not much, but the noetic load is light. It's a series of tableaux vivants with the connective the complacent ponderings of H.P. Two of the set pieces have a degree of force, one is the encounter with the thug Baxter and the other a visit to his mother who is in an old peoples home suffering from dementia. The goddess Nemesis who punished hubris is portrayed with a club. Baxter who seemed to this reader to be her agent needs no club, his fist is hard enough. I was wrong about that too. There's a fantastical denouement that allows H.P. to go on unscathed by the sharp end of shock and awe but is given the opportunity for compassion that would be a credit to a Bodhisattva.
There is great deal of medical procedural, a very boring squash game and a visit to 'my' fishmonger in this Gloomsday. John Banville's dissenting review in the NYRB is acerbic. Read it here:
banville on saturday