Melissa Benn's second novel is about the fraught relationship between the political and the personal. "How would Antigone fare in a New Labour world?" runs the blurb. Sophocles' Antigone wished to bury her brother with all honours, even though he had been declared a traitor to the state. Benn's writer, Anna Adams, grieving for her brother Jack, is adamant that the full truth of his death be made public in defiance of a government cover-up. In the days following the invasion of Iraq, she meets in secret with a journalist, determined to tell "the whole story, and nothing but the story".
Her tale goes back 30 years and concerns the enduring friendship between two prominent families of the London liberal intelligentsia. We are introduced to the Adamses and the Givings at their first meeting, Sunday lunch, very British and genteel: a vitally important scene, vividly imagined, that carefully establishes the dynamics that will lead decades later to catastrophe. Anna is 11, her father a distinguished lawyer entertaining a talented colleague and his young family: the dynamic Andy Givings, who is destined for political greatness.
The Givings become like an extended family to Anna and her siblings: beautiful Laura, ambitious Matt, and Jack, always the rebel. On this first occasion, at 14, Jack can be relied upon to embarrass the company by telling his mother to fuck off, just as Andy can be relied upon to smooth things over. Jack has "discontent written into his very cells". He despises the easy liberalism of his parents as meaningless, grows up to work for a housing charity, and is more at home with the people of the streets than the comfortable milieu of his family. Anna, meanwhile, marries a successful radical lawyer, produces children and feels unfulfilled in a world where equality is given lip-service while the domestic burden still falls on women. Men talk importantly and nod "in that way the men had, acknowledging the claims of the outer world".
When Andy announces that he's thinking of going into politics, Anna wonders "how could that man ever turn into one of those black-and-white ghouls with five o'clock shadow and bloodshot eyes who talked on television about wage claims or the Common Market?" But the fond pseudo-uncle morphs into "the Becoming Great Man", a rising political star attended by his closest aide and adviser, her elder brother Matt. Andy "belonged to everyone now".
Andrew Givings has much in common with Tony Blair and, with Matt's support, fully backs the war on Iraq. Vulnerable Jack, increasingly unstable and painfully idealistic, is horrified. But this is not a simple book. The personal ties that precede huge political divides persist. Power does not so much corrupt as smudge the edges of certainty, and there are no heroes and villains, only striving, fallible human beings. Benn is very good on the complexity of emotion. A betrayed woman, confronting her husband with the truth and final, bitter end of a long marriage, feels sorry for him. People care for and simultaneously despise one another, and love does not always find a way.
Benn writes solid, good prose. When necessary she can communicate both extremes of horror and the subtlest of moods. The political landscape she paints is distinctly murky and ruthless, but she never lets us forget that "the public portrait of public men can never encompass the full complex, human picture: the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth".
Carol Birch's latest novel, 'Scapegallows', is published by ViragoReuse content