Jan. 18th, 2010

tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)
Oxygen by Andrew Miller

Though now that she was older, much older than he'd ever been, she thought she did understand. The blankness. The way sense can unravel so completely you never quite recover it. What was the word for when nothing made sense any more?

This, the first of Miller's novels that I've read, bravely yet sensitively deals with some of life's most fundamental subjects: memory, morality and death. In 1997, the year of comet Hale Bopp, elderly Alice Valentine is dying of cancer in her West Country home. Her approaching death has summoned to her sides her two sons: needy, sensitive Alec the failed school-teacher, and Larry, the seeming golden boy, the tennis-pro turned soap-opera celebrity who has made a life for himself in the US. Each of the young men returns home laden with assumptions, preconceptions and fictions both about each other and about themselves that gradually begin to unravel in the light of their mother's condition. The fourth major character in Oxygen is Lásló Lázár a Hungarian playwright living in Paris. Alec has been commissioned to translate Lázár's latest work into English and as he labours to do so he retreats into a daydream about its author as a man of revolutionary action, someone "who knew how to handle a tommy gun," and a possessor of the sort of courage that Alec himself struggles to muster. Although Alec never meets his literary hero, interspersed between the chapters on the Valentine family, Miller brings to a life a very different Lázár from the one of Alec's reverie, depicting him as a man haunted by a sense of his own inaction during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

Cancer may sound like an incredibly bleak theme for a novel, and it is. As somebody who has known three loved ones struggle with the disease in the past few years (two successfully one sadly not so) I was in two minds about whether I could actually face reading this, but I'm glad I did. Miller deals this difficult subject in a way that is at once unflinchingly honest and yet surprisingly poetic - the passages in which he describes Alice's fear of each long, sleepless night are particularly powerful - and in doing so I think he takes away some of its terrifying strangeness. At times all four of the novel's central characters are haunted by memories of things left unsaid, actions left undone, and in bravely giving utterance to one of the major fears of modern life Miller strengthens his own argument within the book for the comforting power of sometimes just facing up to things: "moments you say yes when others say no, or race back into the burning house without the least hesitation." That old adage of it being better to regret things you have done than the things you have not is brought into play with sensitivity and complexity within the pages of this book.


tispity: Vanquisher character from Torchlight (Default)

September 2010

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