Nikki Gemmell tackles big themes in her new novel – science, religion and the evils of tyranny, no less. She universalises her subject by disguising ethnic groups, religions, cities and languages and the supposed origin of her text, while simultaneously individualising it by focusing on a mother’s love for her children.
The political situation is all too familiar to us, an authoritarian regime attempting genocide against a minority within its own population. (No, I won’t call it ‘ethnic cleansing’, because that disgustingly cynical phrase attempts to give state-sanctioned racism, persecution, brutality and murder a semblance of virtue, and using the term legitimises it.) The minority is defined by both ethnic and religious affiliation — again, an all-too-familiar scenario.
One minority family is caught in the middle. The wife is a top-flight scientist whose work is vital to the regime’s attack on her own people, the husband has resigned from similar work in disgust over the way it will be used, and their three children are hostages to the situation.
For the bulk of the book, the children are literal hostages, hidden in the basement of Party headquarters during an all-or-nothing attempt to smuggle them out of the country. Their mother has been hauled back to work by the military after leaving her position in protest and their father is in hiding, lost from sight. The children are locked up for their own protection but eventually have to venture out in search of food, with dire consequences. (I won’t disclose any more of the plot because the reader’s ignorance is essential to the book’s considerable impact.)
The manner of the narration is problematic. The mother has an angel’s-eye view of her children in their predicament and the facts come freighted with her anxious love for them. This engages the reader emotionally in the intense, claustrophobic narrative, but implicitly denies her or him any independent response to events.
There are two larger debates in the background. The first, the one Gemmell suggests is more important, is between science and religion and is embodied in a long-running argument between the parents. The father has moved away from science because he feels that only religion can address the most important things in life, while the mother puts her trust in science because she feels that religion leads only to wilful ignorance, intolerance and persecution. In the end, she rejects her scientific work because it is a tool of the regime. Gemmell seems to think this is a victory for religion over science but the reader’s insight into the mother’s feelings, through her role as narrator, suggests that it actually has more to do with maternal love: that the lioness, fighting the regime in every possible way to defend her cubs, cares nothing for either science or religion.
Gemmell’s characterisations of both religion and science are unflattering and slightly unfair. On one hand she rigorously excludes conscience and feeling from science and implicitly associates science with inhumanity by doing so; this blurs science into authoritarianism, the more so because of the inhumanity of the country’s authoritarian regime. On the other hand, she associates religion with anti-rationalism but lets it include both the regime’s narrow-minded sectarianism and the husband’s warm-but-fuzzy super-ecumenical blend of all traditions.
The second debate is between freedom and tyranny, and here the ground is firmer but there is no real argument. The evils of authoritarianism backed by religious intolerance are well known and all Gemmell has to do is depict them, which she does, skilfully enough, by showing their impact on a single loving family. In the end one feels that the book has succeeded but not quite in the way the author anticipated.
Harper Collins, August 2009, $29.99
Review originally published July 2009
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