Tuesday 3 January 2012

All Is Song - Samantha Harvey

'Here I am'

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, one that despite featuring as the first review of the new year I fully expect to see on my list of books of the year in 12 months time.

It's so good in fact that settling down to write this post 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.

How could it be that a person's face - simply the way the weight and light fell around their face - could prompt indivisible love? For all that one's family could irritate and infuriate, their mirrored genes and minds of shared memories broke down every defence. There they were, and things were perfectly simple.

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?'

'...the law is clear - there's either enough evidence or there isn't - but the law is just the surface of the water, and nothing that happens there happens on its own -  the colours, the swell, the bubbles that break, they're all caused by things above or below the surface - and I don't know enough about those things.'

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.

As you might expect from a novel that leaves two brothers suddenly without either parent there is a fair amount of looking back. This is particularly true for Leonard who has seen his partner move on with another man and has been left feeling rather rootless ever since. Comparing once again with Julian Barnes' novel about time and memory there are plenty of potent symbols here as well, which Harvey uses with devastating precision. The prospect of owning an old car for example can carry the memory of Leonard's failed relationship, his brother, and the deaths of a family friend as well as both his parents.

The old Austin! In which he'd been with Tela, in which William had learnt - or tried to learn - to drive. Just to think of its cranky black engine that had outlived Jan's heart, his mother's heart, his father's. To get in it would be to get into a piece of stilled time and to drive it would be to to carry that stilled time around with him...
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.


Simon (Savidge Reads) 15 February 2012 at 14:01  

I actually thought I had commented on this post, apologies Will, in my catch up with blogs I have spotted my error.

Your review made me take this out from the library (still haven't read it yet, got to love that renew button) as I loved her first novel, do read it - its brilliant, and this sounds very different but very good.

William Rycroft 15 February 2012 at 23:53  

I really enjoyed this book, not just what it contained but the way it made me feel whilst I was reading it; a real joy. I am certain to read her debut at some point, thanks for recommending it.

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