All is Song Hardcover – 5 Jan 2012
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"The novel is so finely tuned, it is hard to find any passage where she is not fully in control. No matter how dramatic the events she describes, they never drown the ideas being discussed." (Anna Aslanyan Literary review)
A fiercely intelligent and moving second novel from the author of the acclaimed The Wilderness.See all Product description
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Leonard does not really understand William either. On his return to London their contact is closer than at any time since their childhood. Circumstances had made him move out of the home he had shared with his girl friend, and he had accepted William's offer to move in with him and his family. There is great warmth between the brothers, different though they are. Leonard is only intellectually interested in religions and has no faith in any of them. William is deeply religious, but without adhering to any orthodoxy, casually spartan, eccentric and in some ways quite unworldly. He thinks constantly about how to lead an ethical life. When he is not persistently Socratic in his questioning (not only with his pupils, but in conversation with Leonard and others,- and with himself, too), he expresses himself slowly, mildly, calmly, serenely, quirkily, puzzlingly. He is both close and, at the same time, remote - he cares about people in general, but apparently no more about any one person than about any others in a similar situation - but, above all, he cares about his intellectual and moral integrity, in pursuit of which he spares neither himself nor his family.
I am interested in faith, in doubt and in ethical dilemmas; but I found this book heavy going, very slow to develop, in parts stodgily written, and there is a great deal of padding: over and over again, for instance, about the weather and the seasons, or about Leonard looking out of the window. There are, I am sure, many profundities and symbolisms in the book which I have been unable to fathom (the title for one). I could not became engaged in the issues until, intermittently, during the last fifth of the book, when William's teaching - or rather the way his teaching had been misinterpreted - has led him into danger, and when his personality leads him to counter that danger in a very idiosyncratic way. He is part Socrates and part Christ - both martyrs in the end. (D.Dean's review on Amazon UK is particularly good on the echoes of the Christ story.) Ultimately his philosophical questions had not only been misinterpreted by others, but had (in my view) led him into the kind of foolish conclusions that only philosophers sometimes reach. Is he in fact entirely sane?
It's so good in fact that settling down to write this review I wonder which of its many strands I should write about. This is a complex novel, not because it features many characters or a multi-layered narrative, but because it gets under the skin of its small cast and really wrestles with its themes and ideas. At its centre are two brothers, and filial love is one of the things Harvey writes about so fearlessly. Leonard Deppling has spent the last year on sabbatical from his work as a religious studies teacher to care for his dying father. His brother William was absent from the funeral and at the beginning of the novel Leonard joins William and his family in their north London home, these two orphaned brothers looking to re-establish their close bond, something we know will be difficult - 'For all their closeness over the years they still didn't know how to negotiate the extremes of one another, and as soon as the I think became I feel, they faltered, as if they were constrained by the awkward fact they were human.' Leonard also has on his mind the dying wish of his father to find out how involved William was in a campaign of violence that emerged during the Poll Tax Riots.
William is an extraordinary character, a perfect counterpoint to his brother. These two sons of a priest have always been different and in their adult choices we can see this quite clearly. Leonard may teach religion but he has no faith or belief in God himself. William on the other hand is a former activist who now spends his time with former pupils, painfully aware of the state of his ignorance, always questioning, never settling for the easy or obvious conclusion but always bolstered by a very real faith in God. If the character of Adrian in Julian Barnes' The Sense Of An Ending hates 'the way the English have of not being serious about being serious' ('I really hate it.') then he might have loved William. It isn't quite contrariness, although he is prepared to take a conversation to the most uncomfortable places, but a refusal to take anything for granted. His faith also means that he feels an innate fellowship in Man, who despite being 'born from unity.... divide into isolation.' Having 'dreamed themselves clear of Him.' he feels the pull back towards the comfort of that unity but also the need to wake up from the dream. And sometimes that requires a shock. The plot of this novel follows the consequences of one of William's pupils following his line of thought to its obvious conclusion. But that plot is only interesting in as much as it provides conflict between the characters and an arena for the discussion of one of the novel's major themes: responsibility.
With William and his pupil, responsibility comes with planting an idea and refusing to walk away from it even when it is taken too far. William's refusal to accept the escape options laid before him is frustrating but only the logical extension of his own arguments earlier about intention and consequence - 'I assume I'm innocent because I meant no harm, but is it enough to mean no harm?'
Leonard has just spent a year exercising his responsibility to his father, executor now to his estate and even glossing the story of his final moments so that it includes some kind of reconciliation with William. Now living with his brother he feels a strong responsibility towards him also. This however comes into conflict with his father's dying wish and the tension between these responsibilities keeps the novel taut as a bowstring.
Returning to filial love, it is amazing how much love infuses this novel as a whole. William for example claims not to 'see single people, I see people. I don't love or hate discriminately, I just try to give myself equally to all for as long as what I give is wanted. And always, Leo, always this act of giving is vulnerable and my heart gets knocked about.' What looks like a kind of detachment, as though he has never really been in love for example, is actually he claims the fact that he has never really been out of love with one person or another. For Leonard it is much more specific and though through much of the novel he is wrestling with his failed relationship or the death of his father this is really a book about his love for his brother. A brother who always saw the world differently, so much so that he was sent to doctors of both the head and heart; whose actions, though consistent, remain baffling to even his own family, for how of course do you quantify another human being?
'Here I am, William had written on that brain cross-section on the wall, and it was ironic of course, as if to deride their father for supposing that the enormity of a life - his life, or any - could dwell there between skull and grey matter. Leonard stared at it and then hung his head; it wasn't the enormity of life that overwhelmed him then but the distance of it, which was to say the distance between one life and another, which couldn't be navigated physically or even spiritually, no matter how optimistic one sometimes allowed oneself to be. How could it be that he'd stood through two funerals of both parents without crying when just then, in that moment, he thought he might cry and not be able to stop?'
When defending his need to stand by the absolute truth of what he has said, William compares speech to the written word, expressing his preference for the former because it forces us to defend immediately what we say and preserves its genesis whereas what we write can be interpreted and twisted until it no longer resembles what we had meant at all. 'We have too much hope for the written word,' he says 'Too much hope for it and too much faith in it.' Writers like Samantha Harvey restore your faith in the written word all over again.