book reviews by Althea

The Children of Men – PD James ****

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The Children of Men
The Children of Men by P.D. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Re-read for post-apocalyptic book club.

I liked this book better, the second time around. I read this the first time quite a while ago, and I think perhaps my age has something to do with the difference in perceptions. It’s certainly a piece geared toward older readers. Although it contains violence and tension, it’s slow-moving, with a quiet, elegiac feel.

Our narrator, Theo, a lonely academic, is the cousin of the Warden of England. The upheaval of the world’s current situation has allowed the Warden, Xan, to seize absolute power. The “current situation” is that no children have been born for over two decades, and no others are expected to be born. Humanity is facing its end.

However, largely, life goes on as per usual, although with fading hope and increasing ennui. Most citizens, concerned with their daily comfort, do not perceive the iron fist concealed within the Warden’s velvet glove. Even Theo doesn’t see the Warden as any more than the acquaintance whom he used to spend school holidays with, when they were both boys.

But then, Theo is contacted by a tiny group of dissidents with a list of grievances they’d like him to bring to his cousin’s attention. And gradually, they win him over to their point of view. (It doesn’t hurt that one of them is an intriguingly attractive woman.) The likelihood is that Theo’s sympathies won’t make any difference. The Warden is in love with power, and not amenable to making any significant changes.

But then, a shocking revelation is made: the intriguing dissident is pregnant.

Where the book takes it from here is into a complex and insightful exploration of human dynamics. It’s full of religious allegory, but certainly does not demand that the reader have ‘faith’ in order to appreciate its depiction of how religious people might behave in the given situation. (They do a lot of dumb and illogical things within the course of this book, but I found it all utterly believable.) And it’s more than that: it’s about how we see people vs. how they are, about love, loyalty and betrayal, about guilt and redemption, and of course, the seductive nature of power and the erosion of ideals.

I recently read ‘The Book of the Unnamed Midwife’ and thought that it reminded me of this book (after all, how many post-apocalyptic midwives in a world affected by universal sterility are there in fiction?) but upon re-reading, it’s more divergent than I recalled (perhaps the movie version, which is quite different, was beclouding my memories of the book.)

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