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Lost Boys, by James Miller

When children go missing, personal tragedy turns into a political quest

The disappearance of a child is the worst nightmare for any parent, prompting the direst forebodings. James Miller draws upon these fears for his debut novel, to create an allegory for the terminal state of Western civilisation as a whole. The narrative starts with the release from captivity of Arthur Dashwood, an oil executive kidnapped by insurgents in Iraq. His reprieve from execution is mysterious, but appears to mean he can resume his family life and career back in London.

Dashwood's relief is short-lived. Timothy, his 13-year-old son, is plagued by dreams in which a charismatic oriental boy is encouraging him to leave home and join him on an important quest. These visitations are persuasive and Timothy's attempts to alert his father fail. Other pupils at his exclusive private school are experiencing the dreams, and soon boys are vanishing. No one knows where they are going, but there are clues that they are setting off to join the dispossessed of the world in their struggle against the tyranny of the superpowers.

Miller has taken inspiration from diverse strands of fiction and legend. There are borrowings from Peter Pan, and references to the medieval Muslim cult of the Hashshashin, which is said to have trained up youths into assassins. However, his main influences are more contemporary, with large sections of Lost Boys resembling J G Ballard's writings in both subject and style.

The novel follows the concept behind much of Ballard's fiction: that social or environmental triggers can unlock dormant psychological drives, giving rise to widespread upheaval. The alienation and anomie of Miller's characters are recognisably Ballardian, and his debt extends to the detached narration and economic prose. Lost Boys also evokes William Burroughs, particularly in the boys' quest for utopian liberation from a world of bloody oppression.

Miller makes good use of these avant-garde predecessors. His dream-like fable works well and he delivers a strikingly imaginative and tightly written story with wider resonances. Its bold appropriation of global politics places it within the everyday debate which questions the extent to which the desire to control resources and maintain hegemony drives foreign policy in the northern hemisphere. Away from the politics, it will be interesting to see whether Miller can leave his literary mentors behind and develop a stronger voice of his own for the future.