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This is the second book I've read by the author Andrew Miller and although it's a disturbing book, it's good to see an English author gaining such a pinnacle of fame. Born in Bristol in 1960, he studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, which has already produced a number of excellent popular novelists. He gained his PHD in Creative writing in 1995 and has written six novels since his debut novel 'Ingenious Pain' which I have already reviewed.
He has both lived and worked in several countries and this has probably given his books such an array of various countries in his novels, including those set in previous centuries. The Optimists is set in the Uk but again it covers several different countries.
When I set out to review this book I wasn't sure quite where to start. I like to include a fair amount of personal feelings and (hopefully) creative analysis in my book reviews but often find I've given too much of the plot away. Though I will attempt to keep the plot under wraps, even the Guardian reviews cannot help but write more than the usual 'blurb.'
Clem (short for Clement) Glass is a photojournalist just returned from Africa where he witnessed, along with another journalist, a massacre of innocents at a church in a place he calls just N--in his narrative.
Traumatized by what he saw through the lens of the camera and his own eyes, he comes to the conclusion that mankind is basically flawed and redemption a mere word for the masses. Locked in his own nightmare world where he cannot get away from his glimpse into his own personal hell, he sinks into depression with the aid of drink.
When his father calls him to say his sister, Clare has suffered from a repeat nervous breakdown and is institutionalized, he goes first to visit his own father, who has isolated himself on a remote Scottish island of lay preachers, and then goes to see Clare for himself. Realizing he cannot help Clare while fighting his own demons he makes a brief trip first to the other journalist who is attempting his own redemption by working with problem children in America and then returns to the UK. Setting some things in motion he takes his sister back to the West Country where his Aunt has a cottage they can stay in, hoping to recapture some of the happier times when their parents were both still alive.
The story follows a journey of the mind's recovery and the hope of bringing the author of the massacre to justice.
This is the second of Miller's novels to put together a family coping with illness and the psychological impact of witnessing atrocities, but it's totally different in many other ways. The characters are complex personalities and their own pain is individualistic. Since we first meet Clem, it's his story that has the first impact, yet it's a long time before we learn anything of what he witnessed. Instead, it is hinted at, especially since he cannot possibly publish such pictures. Rather they stay festering in his mind along with a real irritation of his eye. This theme is shared by his family who has a history of Glaucoma, especially his mother, Nora who went blind before death.
In some ways his father is emotionally blind, sequested in his own private escapism. Clare hides her face behind dark glasses hiding from the light of an unfriendly world, scared by the dark yet living in her own darkness.
If all this sounds too gloomy, there are some rare moments when his characters delight us by moments of optimism. Clem is naturally a dark character, but he shows a rare sensitivity unfound in most men. He knows instinctively when his sister is troubled but can help her with gentle touches, making sure she is physically comfortable as well as emotionally stable. As an artist with the camera he shares some moments of beauty in the strangest surroundings and I had to re-read some sentences to fully get the meaning from them, so intent I was on the descriptive powers. There is definitely a theme of 'sight' as in physical, mental and emotional but so cleverly achieved it's hard to spot.
Clare is a forty-four year-old writer and teacher; she shares a relationship with a woman called Fianola Fiacc who is possibly a lover as well. Clare is possibly the most difficult character to understand, even if, like me, you have some understanding of depression. If Miller put her in to show Clem's journey to a possible hope, then he couldn't have chosen a better subject. She is sometimes fey, but often hard to like, ditto her friend Fianola, but that makes the book more interesting.
Clem's father might be the weakest of the family with little input except to establish a slightly dysfunctional family from the start.
There are others, the elderly but loving and eccentric Laura, Clem's aunt. Her brother, Kenneth who is mentally disabled but a kind and consistent presence and finally the cousin, Frankie whose marriage will help to free the family restraints and bring about some resolution.
One might suggest that the other journalist, Silverman, is the one who finds an answer to the meaning of whether mankind is inherently evil. His character plays some part, but finally it's Clem's own redemption that will decide the ending.
So it's not easy to say that there is no resolution to the book. Miller doesn't hand out false promises or platitudes. He deals in the risky, the troubled and driven characters, and the power of imagery to carry a story without an ending that many would find nonsensical.
Juggling with the plotline.
Miller's greatest strengths are not just in characters but also in juggling several storylines in one go. It might sound confusing in a review without going into more plot depth, but I don't think you can really grasp just how well he writes without some idea of both story and how each character fits in, especially with a theme that handles death, potential suicide and alcoholic depression. If that sounds strange, I can assure you that alcohol is a depressant and although Miller's characters seem to indulge frequently to hilarious results, they also plumb the depths of despair. Hence the book cover suggests a drowned woman, while in reality Clare is playing with thoughts of suicide while drunkenly bathing nude in a nearby pool, inviting her friend and her brother to join her.
Clem has always been driven by his love of photography and his great success in getting where few other journalists can go; thereby he is also dancing with death. Yet, if it were suggested initially he would say he's an optimist, hence some of the title. When he comes across something that he captured by the 'eye' of his lens, he cannot come to terms with 'condoning by photos' although he could be said to be just doing his job. In attempting some way to save himself, he clashes with saving Clare, who may not want saving. The paradox is the story- the result is humanity in all it's very real flaws and only a love of family to hold on to.
Of course, it could also be said that Miller makes some gentle fun of the English class system, where boredom breeds insanity and lazy days drinking until you pass out isn't a way to come through life's tribulations. Some passages from the book has this impact, especially with the Aunt who has fallen on hard times and still tries to live like gentry. However this plays out, you can't help but care about these damaged people. They do have reasons, even though some may be brought on by their own actions.
There were times this brought me to the edge of tears, because of its realism. This is what Miller does so well, he holds his own mirror up to you and dares you to look in. In the meantime his use of sentences can stop you in your tracks. 'Did I just read that?' Its almost like haiku at times
From my point of view I found this a hard book to read. There were times I put it down, as I couldn't quite grasp the meaning of what I'd just read. Then I had to decide if I could stomach the revelation of the horrors Clem had seen which doesn't come until about a third of the way into the narrative. Could I also come to the same conclusion that sometimes there is no right or wrong, no answer to such troubled times? I've read a few deep books lately that still haunt me by a lack of full understanding. Therefore could I accept another challenge?
Of course I did, or I wouldn't be reviewing the book and with (I hope) some enthusiasm for the contents. I did want to find out what happened and there is some resolution, just not what the reader might want or accept, but isn't that like life itself? In the end I have to say I did enjoy the book and will probably re-read it after a suitable interval. I fully intend to buy his next book, even if I don't buy all the others.
I consider the author as a challenging writer and one I admire. I hope you will too.
The book is available on Amazon at £6.39. Second-hand copies are in short supply.
©Lisa Fuller 2011.