Free Fall opens with one of the most stunning first paragraphs I have ever, or am ever likely to, read. Golding is the master of the poetic image: few writers have such an uncanny ability to conjure up such exact pictures in the reader’s mind’s eye or to draw such empathy. Indeed, I had to wrench myself away from it in order to read the rest of the book, so long did I want to linger there and savour its beauty. Golding’s perfect prose stands as a challenge to the more base expression of lesser writers. The novel deals with free will/freedom, and what happens when it is lost (perhaps via the very mechanism of free will) through the eyes of artist Samuel Mountjoy, who narrates the piece: andante, and predominantly in flashback. (Do not be put off, by the way, when I say that the pace is andante, it is andante as opposed to largo. This book does not drag, it is a consistently engaging read.)
Through an analysis of his past, he tries to make sense of his life, of himself, and of humanity in general. Other themes which emerge during the course of the book are: Love, Life, Guilt, the perplexities of childhood and the heavy responsibilities of adulthood, war, politics, inequity, injustice etc. Golding touches on some, and expounds on others more elaborately. In the hands of a lesser author, the sheer volume and complexity of these interrelated and interwoven themes would soon become a hopeless muddle, but Golding’s touch is sure, and the result is glorious polyphony, rather than terrible cacophony.
Through Mountjoy, Golding explores the nature of a human being, our essence, what some might call a soul, and the inadequacy of language as a medium for communicating or expressing that inner self. Words, and the human imagination which send them forth, cannot fully encapsulate life, or fathom its deepest questions. Trying to systematize it at all, moreover, would be to do it, and those questions, a grave disservice.. Such a philosophy, it seems to me, is entirely in keeping with that of an artist, who merely seeks to represent some portion of life on the canvas, and this is part of what makes the character of Samuel Mountjoy so believable. His questions are our questions, and this is part of what draws us to him.
Our sympathies are deepened when we learn that he is fatherless. This, perhaps, colours his approach to life, and there is certainly a sadness in the daydreams that he and his mother concoct about this mythical figure. I can think of no other author, other than perhaps Fynn (Mister God, this is Anna), who can so inject pathos into a story which is both story and simple philosophical treatise. Both of these wear their scholarship lightly; both narratives are a delight and a challenge. It seems strange to me that Samuel should not really want to know his father, but perhaps it would be too painful. This very human shrinking from possible pain endears him to me still further. That a character should seem so real, so likeable, so the sort of person one would want to meet, is a further testament to Golding’s considerable talent.
The flashbacks consist of a series of analytical portraits of his past selves. Each of these are delivered with traces of irony and odd moments of gentle humour, such that you cannot help but warm to and pity this man, and the small boy that he once was. Sam Mountjoy the child, the adolescent and the POW are all depicted in their full glory and sorrow. Difference, low self-esteem and disillusionment plague him all the way. And perhaps it is in the cell at the POW camp that he finally loses both his literal freedom and that other, more fundamental, freedom – the freedom to be who we really are. The torture scene, in particular, was so vividly evoked, that I was terrified, my head was literally shivering as I read it. Not gruesome, but awful all the same.
Truly this is one of the most powerful, moving and deeply tragic novels I have ever had the privilege to read. If you want to know how the pessimist is formed, how a human being may slowly be broken down into sorrow and doubt, then you need to read this book. And the worst tragedy of it all is that Sam regrets, but that regret is framed by the knowledge that all his actions were inevitable. He was compelled by some force, he knew not what, part emotion, part his own character, that meant that there would be no way that he could go back and alter what had gone on before.
This novel is a masterpiece, a veritable tour de force. I implore you, with everything in me, buy a copy and read it, slowly. And then read it again. You won’t regret it, and you will never forget it, either.