I wrote this post on January 4, 2007. P.D. James recently died, and I thought I would repost this review after I finished her book, “Children of Men.”
While I’m not officially doing that “Read and review 5 books before the end of January,” I have been unofficially doing it. Over the holidays I read a couple of books and am almost finished with my third book.
On to my first book:
“Children of Men” by P.D. James was, for me, one of those novels that can best be described as “subtle.” The action is muted, the characters suffer in ways that aren’t overly dramatic, but perhaps it’s because the world they live in is dying.
The premise of the book is that women cannot conceive children anymore, and that obviously means that humanity will completely die off in about 60 years. So, with that grim reality, how do you live your life? If you’re a Londoner like Theo, the protagonist of the novel, your life is already dead. Theo is a history professor who accidentally killed his daughter a year before the human world inexplicably became sterile. His marriage rapidly disintegrated and he’s a walking shell of a man whose loss certainly mirrors the large-scale loss of new human life on earth.
That is the set-up, but the novel is also about the way in which society reacts to crises and how in times of instability we cling to the security blanket of the State to provide order, predictability, and even pleasure. But the State is no benevolent actor in this society. Rather, a kind of soft-fascism rises and with it the cruelty of its steel-toed boot. Immigrants are used to do the dirty work in society, and some are shipped off the Isle of Man where they are held in a kind of Gitmo-like condition where there is torture and even murder that goes unchecked. Old folks are killed in a ritual called “The Quietus” where they are drugged and then downed at sea. Hordes of gangs roam the outskirts of society looking for stragglers to attack and kill. Overall, it is a grim existence.
Theo is approached by a small group who wants to liberate society from the iron-grip of the State and its Warden (who happens to be Theo’s cousin). Theo is skeptical that they will be able to do anything to change things, but he’s attracted to one of the group’s members and eventually helps them when it’s revealed that the woman he’s attracted to is very pregnant. Theo agrees to keep the woman hidden from the Warden until the child is born. The group hopes that with the birth of new life, it will have a revolutionary effect on society and decrease the power of the state.
It’s not quite accurate to say that I enjoyed this book, but it did have themes that I’m attracted to (i.e., politics and power). P.D. James is a writer whose style can be weighty and meditative at times, but she’s tackling themes and events than can’t be glossed over with an artful turn of a phase, so it kind of comes with the territory that the writing will demand that you pay attention to the details. Would I recommend this book? I would, but with some reservations. If you like novels that explore politics and human nature in an imagined future (that in some ways resembles the present), I think you’ll find this an intriguing read. However, if that’s not your cup of tea, then don’t bother with “Children of Men” because you’ll probably be frustrated with the pace of the novel and subtle demeanor of James’ characters.