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on 27 December 2011
Harvey's debut, The Wilderness, received some impressive critical responses when published, the general consensus being that it didn't read like a debut at all but the work of a far more established writer. I haven't read it, but after reading her new novel I don't feel like I need to in order to proclaim her a writer every bit as promising as that debut suggested. All Is Song is a novel of great intelligence and understanding, the kind of book in which very little actually happens and yet which grips from first page to last with its philosophical, spiritual and emotional explorations. In this way Harvey is the natural heir to Iris Murdoch who I was reminded of when reading this book. Human and humane in its examination of personal responsibility, a small cast of characters become incredibly close to the reader so that it becomes a very moving reading experience.

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.
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on 5 January 2012
All Is Song by Samantha Harvey

Jonathan Cape £16.99

Reviewed by Leyla Sanai

Samantha Harvey's debut, The Wilderness, was a stunning exploration of dementia, and scooped the Betty Trask Prize as well as being shortlisted for The Orange and longlisted for The Man Booker. Her second novel is no less ambitious, its subject being the ethical duty a man feels towards his brother, who he loves but can't comprehend.

Leonard has recently returned from Scotland where he was looking after his retired vicar father in his final illness. His elder brother William did not come to visit during that year, nor did he turn up to the funeral. Their father worried about William to the end, most notably William's role as an activist and whether he was involved in the physical violence shown during the poll tax riots years before. Leonard adores his brother but is frustrated by William's obtuse outlook: his belief that crime is due simply to ignorance, that trivial and major acts of violence are equivalent, his impatience with any form of communication other than the spoken word, and his tenacious propensity to analyse semantics ('...that utterly besetting need to hound, to hound, to send the questions off like dogs in pursuit of answers, a kind of grasping, deranged compulsiveness.') When one of the young men William knows commits a wantonly destructive crime and implicates William, Leonard is drawn inexorably into his brother's Iife and beliefs.

Harvey has given herself the considerable challenge of fleshing out three very different men - the agnostic/ atheist religious studies teacher Leonard; the complex but religious William, whose committment to actions of heroism as well as words is exemplified by his saving of a fellow Navy personnel's life in his brief stint as a naval chef during the Falklands War, and their humanist father. Creating an idiosyncratic character like William, whose philosophical viewpoint will be alien to most readers yet who is wholly credible and whose ethics are echoed by his behaviour, is a considerable feat. That at no time do any of the characters degenerate into talking head caricatures spouting political beliefs is another. But perhaps the greatest achievement here is Harvey's ability to show the enduring nature of love. The siblings' close bonds and loyalty have a strength that surpasses mere ideological differences.

The uncanny perception and acuity Harvey showed in her debut are on full display here. Internal worlds are analysed with a sharpness worthy of astute observers such as Hollinghurst. Conflicting urges are succinctly expressed ('then, to his own dismay, he rifled through William's things.') Reflections are shot through with extreme intelligence and insight ('Leonard realised he would have to go through the usual process of assimilation that always followed any absence from William, in which he let drop his expectations of the norms of brotherhood, and calibrated, realigned and...came to the island of understanding they had together managed to occupy for so long.')

The shrewd observation also gives rise to some wryly humorous moments. When Leonard receives a Dear John letter from his long-term partner Tela, he attains petty revenge by correcting her punctuation and scorning her food tastes. And yet flippancy is never a substitute for emotion - the depth of Leonard's love for Tela is heart-rendingly apparent ('Whatever he'd said, from whatever corner of his heart, she'd found it incomplete or insincere; if he'd killed himself for love if her, that, too, would have probably struck her as disingenuous or uncommitted.')

At the heart of this book are sophisticated philosophical questions- how far is a person responsible for another adult's actions? Do throwaway comments misinterpreted by a hothead really constitute incitement? But the novel's real concern is the endless love we may feel for someone despite not understanding them, and our helplessness at their plight. As Norman Maclean put it so beautifully in A River Runs Through It, 'For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don't know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.'
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The book is written in the third person, but from the point of view of Leonard, the younger of two brothers, both in their fifties. He had taken leave from his profession as sixth form teacher of religious studies in London to attend to his frail and widowed clergyman father up in Edinburgh in the last months of his life. The old man had worried about his elder son, William, who had given up paid employment as a university teacher ten years earlier, was now teaching, free of charge and in the Socratic manner, a number of young disciples and had become the champion of radical protest movements, some of which had engaged in the poll tax riots of 1990. His father could not understand him; William had not come to visit him in those last months, nor did he attend his father's funeral.

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?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 January 2012
Leonard had just taken care of his father's funeral and gone to visit his brother William who did not go to the funeral. William and his wife invited Leonard to stay with them and their two young children. In the brief stay, Leonard learned more about William and began to understand him and his complex mind a little better. Samantha Harvey crafted William's character through his conversations with Leonard, and through Leonard's recollections of their childhood, exploring sanity through William's sharp mind and his resolute refusal to be corrupted by a corrupt world. This was writing at its best. Patience is required to realise the point that Harvey was making, but one will be well rewarded at the end of the book. Attention to the conversations is important and Harvey made it fascinating and thought-provoking at the same time, and has given us a book to be savoured slowly - and perhaps remind us that it is sometimes best not to remember. When Leonard talked about a pond, William posed to Leonard, what if there was a fish in that pond which after years of swimming in it suddenly pops its head out of the water and realised that there was a bigger world out there? What would it do? "Go back under water and forget it ever saw it, probably", Leonard answered. William then said: "Yes, probably. And every time it thinks that the pond is all the world, it'll commit an ignorant error, and it'll go on committing the same error day after day, perhaps all its short futile life."

This book draws deep into philosophy, family and friendship. It examines truth generally and why we seek it; whether it matters. It all begins to come together when the police called upon William's home, asking about an arsonist named Stephen - and the possibility of William being an accessory to the crime.
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on 24 January 2012
I didn't read Samantha Harvey's first novel,`The Wilderness' so I can't compare the two, but I found this one quietly powerful in its questions about responsibility, culpability, duty, faith and the nature of sin. To begin I thought the pacing was glacially slow (though I was revelling in the beauty of the language) but the character of William gradually sucked me in in the way I imagine he sucked in his students and followers. Perhaps it was too philosophical, too academic in places, given that it was in essence a character study, I don't know. Apparently we are supposed to read William (the novel is about two brothers, William is the elder) as a modern-day Socrates - I'm afraid I know little of him, though William does employ the Socratic Method, but to me William was a Christ-like figure. He hears the voice of the Lord; he has his disciples; he is tempted by Aleph, the flame haired anarchist beauty with the privileged background (whom all other men are in thrall to) whilst he endures his 40 days in the wilderness (or five weeks in a psychiatric ward!); there is a last supper of sorts that is described as being like a communion; he questions the existence of sin and says there is only ignorance and fear (or to put it another way: forgive them for they know not what they do). I'm not entirely sure what Harvey's point with all this is unless it is to ask whether Jesus was also ignorant and unable to control the way his message would be interpreted years hence, and to question if he too is therefore culpable for the acts committed in his name... it's certainly a novel I will be mulling over for a few days yet, and it has made me keen to read 'The Wilderness' at some point.
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on 19 July 2013
I like to write little notes as I read, to help me remember the reading experience of each book, and I have a note for page 246 of this book "Still feels like it hasn't started". I bought 'All is Song' with a birthday book token because I so enjoyed Samantha Harvey's first novel, 'The Wilderness'. I persevered and finished the book but found this one a difficult and rather dry read. There is so much philosophising and self-analysis that the book feels like one long conversation between the two brothers. That in itself is an interesting concept for a novel but makes for a tedious read. However, in amongst this are flashes of wonderful descriptive lines and passages so that at times I was falling, losing myself in the depths of family life, only to be dragged back to the constant nagging analysis. Disappointing. Took me more than twice the time that I would have expected to read this, mostly because I kept forgetting whether I had read the page I was on, getting easily distracted. I would still give her next novel a go because the first one was so good. Maybe the publisher gave her too short a time to write number two and will be more generous with the third (pure speculation).
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on 3 March 2013
This really is a wonderful book, thought-inspiring and original. I will read it several times and will keep it .
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on 13 February 2012
I bought this book having read a review in the Evening Standard. If a book grips me i never put it down until it is finished. I still have not finished this one and i have had it for a month. I will finish it to see how (if) it ends but i cannot read more than a few pages a week. It is that badly written. This is a boring as well as badly written book. It was meant to allude to the relationship between Plato and Socrates. It has some poor attempts at pop philosophy. The author has a degree in Philosophy. I can see why she did not pursue it as a career but writing was also a bad idea. Neither the plot nor the characters have any depth. Development is tedious. I write the review now in case i give up and never finish it. A great disappointment.
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