Books: Taboo through the looking-glass

E Jane Dickson can't quite believe in a clear-sighted view of our paedophile obsessions
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Dream Children

by AN Wilson

John Murray, pounds 15.99

A N Wilson's is not so much a novel as an essay question: "Sex with Children is the last taboo. Discuss." On a practical level, the author's swotty approach turns out to be rather a good way of handling this most volatile material.

Wilson's protagonist, Oliver Gold, is a moral philosopher. His secret lover is a girl of 10, whose mother is the lesbian partner of Oliver's star pupil. The girl's grandmother, in whose house the whole menage camps, is the embittered widow of a serial adulterer.

These paradigms of a permissive society frame the book's central argument. Marriage and family are no longer enshrined by law. Homophobia is considered a greater sin than homosexuality. In this moral free-fall, why balk at consensual sex with children? If the reason is that children do not know their own minds, what makes sex with minors worse than sex with indecisive adults?

Oliver talks a good argument but, threatened with exposure, he finds that not even the liberals in his own household allow him to live by his impeccably argued lights. This is the second Big Theme: a dislocation between private ethics and public morality.

Wilson avoids the Lolita syndrome. While we are given a compelling view of the workings of Oliver's mind, ten-year-old Bobs never comes across as a sex object. Nor does she convincingly come across as a child. In fact, none of the female characters is fleshed out beyond schematic requirements. Oliver alone is presented in three dimensions, and even here there is no distinction between his and the narrative voice. It is hard not to feel buttonholed by Wilson's pedagogy, his anecdotes about Karl Marx's nanny or the allusive structure of the Icelandic skalds. This authorial showing-off is funny at first, but it clogs the narrative.

is a serious, largely successful attempt to distinguish the wood from the trees in an obscure area of human behaviour. But the weight of the material threatens its frail structure. The moral novels of the 19th century that Wilson admires inspire us not because we understand their characters but because we believe them. There is much to engage with in ; not enough to believe in. The ending, however, is brilliant.