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Though I am absolutely fascinated with True Crime, both books and documentaries, strangely enough I don't actually read a great deal of crime fiction. P. D. James is a well known and celebrated crime fiction writer and though I had heard of her books I have never read anything by her before.
I was having a look recently at lists of great dystopian literature when I cam across 'The Children of Men' on the list. I had seen the film (which is based on the book) several times and owned it on DVD having really enjoyed the concept and the execution of the film. I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book and had really high hopes for the contents.
As I said P. D. James generally writes crime fiction so this deviates slightly from her normal style, being a dystopian novel. It is set in England in 2021 and examines the results of 25 years of mass infertility across the world. It seems, for some unknown reason, that all men have lost the ability to procreate and as a result no babies have been born for 25 years. The country is governed by a despotic Warden, Xan Lyppiatt, and the story is told from the perspective of his cousin Theo Faron. Theo is an Oxford don. He is divorced from his wife and living alone. Though they did have one child she was killed in a tragic accident in which Theo ran her over, this among other things contributes to the break down of their marriage.
The book begins as a diary entry written in 2021 but focuses heavily on the events of 1995, dubbed the year of the Omega, in which the last child was born on earth. In 1994 the sperm count of the entire population of the world plummeted to zero and the last children to be born are now, in 2021, called Omegas and benefit from additional privileges in society. Theo's contemplations then jump to 2006 when his cousin Xan was elected the Warden of England, since then interest in politics and life in general has dwindled and so he has abolished democracy and reigns over England indefinitely. The first half the book explores what has happened to a society which essentially has no hope for the future and is ruled by a tyrant. This is interspersed with flashbacks to Theo's childhood and his relationship with Xan.
The only part that is really important in the first half is Theo's first meeting with Julian, a young woman who attends one of his classes on Victorian Literature. She is outspoken, livens up his class and instantly captures his attention. When she wants to meet with him weeks later he is intrigued and discovers she is part of a group of dissenters who want him to visit Xan. They have a series of demands they want met, the majority political policies introduced by Xan which they want abolished. Theo agrees though the meeting goes as he expects it to and Xan agrees to nothing. Julian and her group of rebels, self-named The Five Fishes, distribute leaflets and pull a few public stunts to get the attention of the warden and show him that they are serious. As a result Theo is visited by the authorities and pressed for information, which he does not give them.
The second half of the book begins 6 months later with Theo being visited by Miriam, a member of The Five Fishes. She wants Theo to come with her as they have to decided to go on the run, being sought by the authorities, and Julian has requested Theo come with them. Theo, obviously entranced by Julian, agrees but wants to know the reason Julian needs him. Miriam reveals that Julian is pregnant and is carrying the first baby to have been born for 25 years. This is a momentous thing for England, and for the entire human race, and they fear what Xan will do if he finds out Julian is carrying this precious child. I won't spoil the ending but the pace of this part of the book definitely picks up and there is a great deal more action which helps to move the book along.
Though I really enjoyed the concept for this book there are a few places in which it just didn't live up to my expectations. Firstly it differs from the film hugely and I can absolutely see why the film makers did this, they took the basic plot and then deviated entirely from the plot of the book. In the film there is a lot more action whereas in the book pretty much two thirds of it is inaction and ruminations on Theo's life. I much preferred the way they did this in the film as the plot seemed better thought out, more pacey generally more enjoyable. It is rare for me to favour a film over a book and perhaps my view was skewed by having seen the film first but the book definitely dragged in places for me and took me over a week to finish (if I enjoy something I usually devour it in a couple of days).
Though most of the book is based around inaction you would think there would be more discussion of what is happening in England, which frankly is the interesting part for me. I want to know what the fallout of this worldwide catastrophe is and how it effects the everyday person. These things are discussed, in part, though never in enough detail to satisfy my morbid curiosity. They also talk briefly about Omegas, and they feature in the second half of the book, but I found this a little confusing and actually finished the book not totally understanding what they were or how they had come to be as savage and barbaric as they had.
Probably my biggest problem with it though was the style in which it was written. The book flicks between first person and third person which I actually found confusing and infuriating. The book would have been better had P. D. James stuck to one style and persevered with it. The result is that as reader you prefer one style and I personally became annoyed by the first person perspective of Theo.
This is by no means a terrible book and there were certainly part of it that I did really enjoy. I think the concept is brilliant and many of the aspects well thought out. I just would have preferred more action or more observations on society, rather than the internal thoughts of a middle aged man whose personality wasn't always sympathetic.
Overall, I enjoyed the book in parts but definitely preferred the film.
P.D. James is a successful British crime fiction writer but having never read her work before, I picked this book up out of interest after vaguely hearing about the film based on it.
"The Children of Men" is not a crime fiction novel but is instead a dystopian novel set in a future England where no-one has been able to have a child for twenty-five years. The novel is all about the consequences of this mass childlessness on society.
I have to say I quite enjoyed it and thought it had a nicely menacing air. It was quite indebted to Orwell's "1984" in some ways but was by no means a replica.
The main character is Theo, who isn't always a sympathetic protagonist as he can be quite irritating and also cold. He is the cousin of the Warden of England who is basically a dictator. The book begins with Theo's diary, in which we find out more about his cold, unemotional character.
Theo becomes accidentally involved with a group of dissidents and starts to question the way society is now run. The older members of society are filled with despair and the young people are vicious. The last children to be born are known as Omegas - they are basically allowed to do as they wish and many are sociopaths.
I found this a good read and although it wasn't non-stop action and it was really quite short, it had a brooding atmosphere throughout which was quite compelling.
The premise of the story seems odd but it is also something that is within the realms of possibility. The mass madness and loss of hope without the presence of children in the book is quite chilling. Middle-aged women are shown to be at a loss without the hope of having a child and are driven to having dolls or kittens as replacement babies.
The group of dissidents bring some interest to Theo's life as well as reviving his conscience. He begins to have feelings for Julian, the female leader of the dissidents, but he is still unconvinced that they have any chance of success in reforming society. However, he doesn't realise the trump card that Julian is holding...
The apparent growth of Theo's character throughout the novel is interesting, he begins to have some conscience and his feelings for Julian are almost touching. However, it isn't always convincing and as a reader I struggled to trust Theo as the protagonist. I feel that this was intentional though as in this society no-one can trust anyone else.
The ending of the book is chilling and hopeful at the same time - the reader is yet again unsure whether Theo can be trusted.
If you liked the implicit menace of "1984" and "Brave New World" I would recommend this book to you.
This review is also on ciao.co.uk under username mogdred1.