Top positive review
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Cracking good read
on 15 March 2007
Theo Faron is an uncomfortable hero, perhaps even an anti-hero. Beginning with Theo's diary entry for 1st January 2021, we are asked to empathise with a fifty year old man who has never loved, in spite of having been married and fathered a child. He writes with more warmth of the family cat, and turns his back on an old colleague in his hour of need. It's hardly surprising that Theo isn't exactly slitting his wrists at the idea of humankind dying out. He doesn't seem to like humans very much anyway.
All this changes, however - as so often happens - with the arrival of a beautiful woman, the oddly-named Julian, a pre-Raphaelite goddess with a misshapen hand. (The polar opposite of Julianne Moore's gung ho character in the film, if you've seen it.) Julian is one of a small group of would-be activists, wanted by the State Security Police. The moment that Theo's diary gives way to breathless ramblings about this nubile creature buying oranges in the supermarket, you know it's only a matter of time before he too is in trouble.
The book is divided into two sections - Omega and Alpha. Omega makes good use of the diary conceit to feed us the ghastly details of James's imagined Britain: desperate woman pushing dolls about in prams; christenings held for kittens; old people 'encouraged' to take their own lives. With this cowardly new world firmly established, book two - Alpha - cranks up the pace, with a cat and mouse pursuit through the countryside. A more traditional third-person narrative takes hold of the story when it's no longer safe enough for Theo to keep a diary. The violence is real and bloody, and some tight plotting saves plenty of surprises for the end.
Religious symbolism is there in spades if you want it. It's a genuinely thought-provoking book for many reasons, but just read it as a good old-fashioned thriller if you like. Yes, P.D. James is a little stuffy at times, a litte stern - a tightly-corseted Victorian governess of a writer - but once Theo is free of his precious Oxford museums the story itself takes on new life. If you've seen the film and didn't like it, try the book anyway - they're chalk and cheese.
My only real complaint is that James has an annoying habit of introducing several characters at once - in painstaking detail. The scenes where Theo meets the activist group and then, later, the Warden's Council, remind you all of a sudden that you're reading about this in a book instead of actually living the story. The narrative breaks for an intricate description of each character, one by one, and then resumes just as suddenly. An amateur mistake for such a smoothly professional writer.