Messianic madness

Miranda Seymour is haunted by Utopian dreams in Jane Rogers' new novel; Promised Lands by Jane Rogers Faber, pounds 14.99
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This is a book that offers more than the simple telling of a story, engrossing though the narrative is. Jane Rogers is fascinated by the subject of messianism. In Mr Wroe's Virgins, her last novel, she told the story of a Lancashire woolcomber who, convinced that he was destined for glory, set up a colony for himself and his female followers. Disgraced in England, he survived to become a successful church leader in Australia. Promised Lands opens as an idealistic young officer sails towards New South Wales in 1788. He dreams of forming a Utopian society in which the invaders and aboriginals will learn from each other and live in unity.

The officer, Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, is based on a historical character. His story is related by another idealist, Stephen Beech, an embittered history teacher who uses Dawes's life as a way of exploring his own thwarted dream of a perfectable world.

Rogers is an uncommon storyteller and her gifts have never been more successfully deployed than on Dawes. He is a wholly sympathetic creation and yet, with remorseless clarity, Rogers exposes him as both weak and self-serving. By the end of the novel, she has shown that everybody with whom he associates, from the steely governor of the new colony to the most brutal of the convicts, has more integrity than the man who regards himself as the conscience of the expedition. Each of Dawes's actions is performed with the best of intentions; each is questionable. When he intervenes on behalf of a victimised man his behaviour leads directly to the deliberate spreading of smallpox and death among the natives whose lands have been appropriated. When he refuses to take part in a punitive expedition arranged by the governor, the chief thing at stake is the salvaging of his own conscience.

Dawes is a complex character. His humanity and his faith in human goodness make it impossible to condemn his self-righteousness. Jane Rogers has more difficulty in enlisting sympathy for his supposed creator, Stephen Beech.

The problem here is that she is digging into very well trodden ground. Beech is a militant left-winger who has attempted to create a blueprint for an equal society in a comprehensive school and who, by his own hubris, destroyed the thing he loved. But Beech's politics are so painfully near to caricature that it is impossible for the reader to have sympathy with his vision. Rogers only just rescues him from banality by the device of an angry, eloquent wife who represents everything the teacher most despises.

Olla Beech comes out of the same well of disembodied female voices as the virgins who told the story of the charismatic Mr Wroe. Her passionate materialism, bred of extreme poverty, provides the one stark form of humour in a dark novel. She jeers at Stephen's school for caring more about liberating the children's minds than about the grades they get. Invited to regard herself as a free wife who is able to work just as hard as her husband, she jeers again. Doesn't Stephen understand that the freedom not to work, to be an indulged housewife, is a far greater luxury to a woman like her? Marriage, to Olla, means a smartly-decorated home, pretty clothes, an expensive car. When Stephen, like William Dawes, talks about changing society, she is amazed by his naivety.

He thinks they will legislate for human happiness by abolishing wealth and greed. Which two things are in themselves the sole source of many people's meagre amount of joy.

But Olla also dreams of a new world. A genetic weakness has killed her young brother and her first child. Now, she and Stephen have a new baby, a pathetically underfunctioning creature whom the doctors evidently regret having allowed to live. To Stephen, the baby is a tragic burden; his wife believes the baby has hidden powers. Her child is the Messiah who will redeem the world. Her task is to guard him and ensure that his secret is kept until the appropriate moment. Like Stephen and Dawes, Olla will sacrifice everything for her dream.

All the visions are mad and, in their way, sublime. Jane Rogers has knitted them together in a haunting and passionate novel, beautifully related, with some of the best passages of descriptive writing I have read for a long time. She is an exceptional novelist. Her imagination is quite extraordinary. I hope Promised Lands brings her the recognition she deserves.