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A slow-moving exploration of big themes through ordinary lives
on 6 April 2010
It's hard to sum up the plot of this novel, because there is so little of it. The joy of it is not in what happens, but in watching the characters - the four members of a middle-class Chicago family - go about their lives, which, despite sharing a house, are more or less completely unconnected. Jonathan Casper is a research scientist, and his passion is the giant squid. He is endlessly thwarted by a younger, better-looking French rival who always seems to be in the right place at the right time when specimens surface. Jonathan's obsessive dedication to his work leads him to neglect his teaching at the University of Chicago, to have little idea about what is going on his daughters' lives, and to leave the running of the house to his wife, Madeline. Madeline is feeling increasingly resentful: she has her own career as a scientist, specialising in avian behaviour, and things are not going well with her research into dominance and hierarchy among pigeons. While Jonathan and Madeline's marriage is jeopardised by Jonathan's behaviour, their daughters are negotiating the difficult territory of high school. Thisbe is fourteen, and has few friends. Raised an atheist, she has suddenly developed a fascination with religion and prayer which borders on the obsessive-compulsive, much to Madeline's annoyance. Thisbe is desperate to be a singer and to use her voice to celebrate God, but is saddled with a terrible voice. At chorus practice, where has been relegated to accompanist, she meets the fascinating Roxie with her obnoxious attitude and beautiful voice, and an awkward friendship begins to emerge. Thisbe's sister Amelia is seventeen and believes herself a Marxist, seeing her role as editor of the school newspaper as one through which she must raise the consciousnesses of her unenlightened classmates. She bends all school assignments to her revolutionary ideals, creating a pipe bomb for a science project, and interpreting the brief for her history project as allowing her to write a film which proclaims "Capitalism is lame... George Bush is a terrorist..." For this is 2004, the presidential election looms, and America is confronted on a daily basis with the consequences of the invasion of Iraq.
While Jonathan, Madeline and their daughters are absorbed in the day-to-day, Jonathan's father, Henry, is hating his existence in a care home and carefully plotting his escape. As he counts down to when he will make his attempt, he withdraws a little more each day, gradually saying less and less and rationing what he feels are his final words. During this waiting period, Henry runs over his memories and summarises each one up in a few words, which he writes down addressed "to whom it may concern" and mails back to himself at the care home. Many of Henry's memories are to do with war: the arrest of his German father at the outbreak of World War Two; his family's interment in an American camp for enemy aliens; his own work as an engineer on super-fast planes, which he later discovers have been used to drop napalm on Vietnamese villages.
No particular point or message seems to be made by this novel; rather, it is a slow-burning examination of the themes of war, conflict and dominance told through watching the Caspar family through a few weeks of their lives. I enjoyed it very much.