BOOK REVIEW / The last generation game: 'The Children of Men' - P D James: Faber, 14.99 pounds

IT'S the year 2021 and re-runs of Neighbours have become something of a cult. The puzzle of the soap's popularity is slightly less impenetrable, though, this time round. The sight of youth (even brainless Antipodean youth of 1990s vintage) is bound to have an intense, nostalgic appeal for the dwindling, ageing population of a planet stricken, since 1995 (the year Omega), with universal human infertility.

The best parts of P D James's flawed but fascinating departure from detective fiction are those which convey the bleak moral texture of a world where providing for posterity has ceased to give life its point, and the goal instead is short-term comfort and entertainment. England is ruled by a dictatorial Warden and supervised by the State Security Police. The burdensome elderly are despatched in the Quietus, a ceremonial form of mass-'suicide', while Sojourners (the young from less affluent countries) are imported to do the dirty work and forcibly repatriated when they get too old. The race to find a scientific cure has bred distrust between nations, but science is now seen as the god that failed and in some countries there has been a reversion to old myths and superstitions. The Omegas (the last young to be born) indulge in ritual savagery.

James's powerful imagining of this scenario is heightened by a host of glancing, more intimate details; the cossetted dolls and the kitten-christenings that give frustrated motherhood its substitute satisfactions; the recordings of vanished boy-treble voices played and wept over in college chapels. Remarks made in passing, such as that people now marry less frequently 'and often with the same sex', alert you to the many alternative novels James might have written against this background. The adventure story she has chosen to tell certainly keeps you turning the pages, but the progress it charts from darkness to incipient light and from selfishness to selfless love is disappointingly crude and unconvincing.

Consisting, in part, of his diary entries, the novel focuses on Theo Faron, a 50-year-old Oxford don and cousin of the Warden of England. He is approached one day by a young woman with a deformed hand and asked to meet her little group, called the Five Fishes, whose aim is to erase human rights abuses and restore democratic government. Theo is the least likely of recruits to this brave, semi-Christian outfit. Fastidiously self-regarding and someone who regrets his incapacity to love only as a tone-deaf person might lament a failure to appreciate music, Theo is a backward-looking historian, a divorce, and the accidental killer of a little daughter who inspired in him more jealousy than affection.

All the more dramatic, then, that a man who has shunned taking any responsibility for others should become, in the course of some fearful adventures, the figure who ends up courageously protecting the (miraculous) future of the human race. It's debatable, though, whether the novel really earns the right to this irony. When describing Theo's growing love for the young woman, James's normally model prose becomes gushy and stilted, robbing it of reality: 'It was as if in one moment the forest was transformed from a place of darkness and menace . . . into a sanctuary, mysterious and beautiful, uncaring of these three curious interlopers, but a place in which nothing that lived could be wholly alien from him.' Likewise, the woman herself and her female friend are treated with an off-putting reverence.

The writing, paradoxically, is at its most fertile in evoking unfruitfulness. And with the reader left not knowing to what extent Theo may be corrupted by the sudden prospect of colossal power, the ambiguously hopeful ending is far more disturbing than the official Christian sign-off is prepared to admit. One could say of this novel what T S Eliot said of In Memoriam: 'Its faith is a poor thing, but its doubt is a very intense experience.'

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before