Waterdrops, By John Lucas


Paul Binding
Monday 27 February 2012 01:00

In the “mostly sun-filled days” of summer 1944, two children, nine-year-old David and his younger sister Sarah, are holidaying with their grandparents in the country near Peterborough. Their mother should have come but has stayed behind, leaving the pair at a loose end, irritable. Back in Leicestershire, David had his pal Robin, his choir practice, the Fox gang, and his GI friend, Jay Krassner from Gary, Indiana, drummer in a swing band.

Here he has only Sarah and her toy bear for company; she even gives silly screams on seeing a dragonfly. These elicit no sympathy from David, so, after a silence, the girl takes revenge: “She opened her mouth and, without looking at him, spoke. At first, he wasn't sure that he'd heard her correctly. When he realised he had, he was shocked into numbness. Speech comes only with difficulty: ”I don't believe you.“ An assertion he repeats, this time shouting.

But he does believe her. We, who only learn what the little girl said at the end of the chapter, believe her also. That something is believed doesn't mean it's true; equally, not to be believed is no proof of untruth. John Lucas's novel is a mystery-like series of Russian dolls, an enthralling narrative of a small boy's year of discovery and his adult self's patient quest for fuller knowledge, and a meditation on belief given convincing flesh-and-blood.

Belief creates its own mental world. David and Sarah's father, Stephen, marooned in bomb-harassed Malta, is sustained – as his lively, extensively quoted letters show – by trust in love as resident everywhere. But belief can also destroy. As the novel's second part, set in 1994, demonstrates, shared conviction becomes conviction in another sense: life imprisonment.

Before the war, Stephen was an English teacher; later, his son David will lecture in literature. The title is from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. “'As true as Troilus' shall crown up the verse,” its hero says of himself. But for most of us, being stalwart is not so easy. In the play, Cressida responds that only “when waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy” should “memory upbraid” her falsehood. Lucas's beautiful, profoundly charitable art makes us experience this desideratum afresh.

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