Narrative style: Chronological, shifts between first and third person.
Synopsis: Babies are no longer being born anywhere around the world. This has been so for over 20 years. Theo Faron is merely getting through his days with no hope for the future – either his own or that of civilisation. Then he meets Julian who is part of an activist group. Theo is immediately attracted to her and agrees – against his better judgement – to help the group out.
Time on shelf: I’ve wanted to read this for a long time. I bought this copy about three or four years ago but I kept overlooking it.
Reading challenges: TBR Challenge
I really wanted to enjoy this. I’m a big fan of dystopias (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and Brave New World are some of my favourite books) but I couldn’t get to grips with this one. It’s a shame as James clearly had some interesting things to say about power and its abuses. The things she describes happening are apt and I could imagine that would be how things would go if such a dreadful thing were to occur. Unfortunately the plot and characterisation didn’t live up to that promise.
My first problem was with Theo’s first person narration – written as diary entries. I know that he was a historian and also bored with his existence but did his voice have to be so dull and plodding? He is also an unpleasant person with barely a thought for anyone else. He accidentally ran over and killed his daughter but shows little feeling for the child or for her mother when she is grieving. Don’t get me wrong, I love a less than perfect hero as much as the next person but Theo was almost impossible to like. There was no way to root for him.
James switches from Theo’s diary entries to third person narration from Theo’s point of view every couple of chapters. I wasn’t really sure why she used this device as it didn’t allow the reader access to anyone else’s thoughts. It did at least save the reader from the tedium of Theo’s first person voice. About halfway through the novel, Theo throws away his diary and the novel from then on is in third person. Fair enough but there were third person chapters before that happened.
The plot is very slow moving. It feels like a long time before anything happens. Even once Theo has met Julian, things don’t speed up. He agrees to help her and the other members of the ‘five fishes’ group after seeing the horror of a ‘quietus’ – the government’s way of dealing with the immense number of elderly people – where the elderly are expected to ‘voluntarily’ commit suicide when they reach a certain age. (This was one of the better parts of the book. Theo is forced to think for himself and to realise that the Government are actually not as good as he thought.) This is further brought home to him when he naively goes to visit Xan, the Warden of England, who also happens to be his cousin and finds he cannot persuade him to change any of his ideals.
I felt that James could have picked any issue to write this dystopia. While there are details of women christening their pets or pushing around dolls in prams because the focus is on Theo (who didn’t even love the child he had) we don’t see much of the emotion of the situation. There is no longing for a younger generation from him. He is only concerned for himself. At the end of the novel, Theo shoots the Warden and takes the ring that symbolises his power. It seems that he will be the next leader of England – especially as he can now introduce the first baby born since 1995 to the world. Given Theo’s lack of feeling for others, it is doubtful he will make a better leader than Xan. The novel ends with him baptising the new baby suggesting his new sense of power and Julian (the baby’s mother) can only look on, pushed aside as surely as she would have been if Xan had still been in charge. James makes a strong point about power and the way men push women aside even when they are needed for the most important job in the world. I just wish that the story that brought us to this point have been better.