Reading for pleasure
This month's selection of leisure reading chosen by the Journal's Book Review Editor
The Children Act
Ian McEwan (Jonathan Cape: £16.99)
This is a brilliantly written book, placing the private and public acts of a High Court judge under the microscope as she is asked to grant a motion to a hospital to infuse donor blood to a 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness, an essential invasive procedure prior to administration of two drugs which offer the greatest chance of survival. The judge herself is facing personal trauma, as her husband of 30 years announces that after over seven weeks' absence of marital relations he is, unless his wife reverts to her former self, inclined to embark on an affair.
It becomes clear that the day-to-day judicial activity of deciding high profile family cases, the latest a decision on the separation of Siamese twins of whom only one will survive, is having an unconscious, profound effect on the judge, Fiona Maye. For many in the profession, this may be something not unknown to them – the quiet infection of family life by professional influences. One argument advanced to her is that the child, Adam, being three months short of his 18th birthday, is competent to make independent decisions including those affecting his physical health. The judge takes the step to visit Adam in hospital and realises not only his intelligence and erudition but his potential. The encounter has a transformative effect on the judge.
McEwan displays an acute, intelligent, inquisitive approach to both the legal issues and the personal aspects of the decision, whether in law, morality or religion, from the perspective of the judge and child, written with characteristic clarity and description. Another cracking book from a brilliant wordsmith.
Village of Secrets – Defying the Nazis in Vichy France
Caroline Moorehead (Chatto & Windus: £20; e-book £9.99)
Caroline Moorehead tells what must count as the definitive account of the actings of villagers on the Plateau Vivarais Lignon, high in the mountains of the Massif Central, France, during the Vichy regime. Definitive, because as Moorehead points out, there have been various accounts, some fiercely disputed by those villagers who assisted the Jews secrete themselves around the plateau. The main focus is on the assistance provided to the children who were mercilessly treated at the hands of the Nazis, and as Moorehead movingly describes, despite being orphaned.
In less skilled hands, this would be a depressing recounting, but in Moorehead's hands there is an uplifting of the spirit as we witness the personal sacrifice of the villagers and their families (one child who later described feeling that her mother had more time for the Jewish children she was caring for than her own daughter) to save thousands of Jews. The plateau was "perceived by all as exceptional for the safety it offered". Before the war, children had been sent for schooling in the plateau due to the fresh air and clear climate, and those schools provided a basis upon which the villagers, together with their Protestant and Darbyist community leaders, developed a safety net.
The book also highlights the position of French Jews, who had assumed themselves safe from deportation until around 1942 when the tide turned against them too. There are innumerable moving stories of children being taken across the border into Switzerland, although even here the borders were eventually "hermetically" closed on 4 August 1942 despite evidence being provided of the horrors of Auschwitz, and the Swiss saw the Jewish children, for all they had gone through in their short lives, as "dangerously unstable". At a time when we witness history repeating itself, time out to reflect on the humanity that fear can engender is a story that must be retold.
Elliott Colla (Bitter Lemon Press: £8.99)
How do you like your roman noir? Is your preference for crime, with the central protagonist a policeman? Check. Do you like it action packed, moving from venue to venue? Check. A complicated plot, where not everything is as it seems? Check.
Stir into that the moral ambiguities and uncertainties of occupied Baghdad in 2003. Compare and contrast the actions of the local militia and those of the American and British upholders of the Coalition Provisional Authority Order. Festoon with multiple strands of Iraqi poetry.
The end result is as remarkable a book as I have read this year. Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji is a former Iraqi cop who deserted his post. Agreeing to search for his missing niece, and ever motivated by having to care for his ill daughter, he stumbles into working for the Americans to help re-establish an Iraqi police force. His route into this involves being mistaken for one of the “deck of cards” most wanted. Grim reading. His path thereafter zigzags between the Iraqi and American zones of Baghdad. Colla’s description of this journey evokes the social conditions in Baghdad far more lucidly and graphically than even John Simpson or Jeremy Bowen could ever have done.
The whodunit part of the plot is clever and well structured. Khafaji is a credible and sympathetic character. For all its grim sections, there is a lightness of touch throughout, and Colla’s expertise – he is an American scholar, specialising in Arabic literature and culture – makes the whole novel seem entirely believable. Very different: very much worth the reading.