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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'