I've just finished The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud and I'm sorry but this post has got longer and longer, I'll be having bandwidth issues soon.
Scattered amongst this year's Booker reads are some very fine and important novels and, for me, this is one of them.
As I see it,focusing on the truth that every nation, people and creed carries around the millstone of its own unsayable, the subject less discussed, the subject you dare not mention other than in tones of reverence and awe, but the one that is often there, ever present like a haunting. Some have been pacing the corridors since time immemorial, some are very new ghosts on the block.
Howard Jacobson says as much in the inimitable voice of Kalooki Nights.
"For just as sinners pass on their accountability to generations not born, so do the sinned against.'Remember me' says Hamlet's father's ghost, and that's Hamlet fucked."
In The Secret River Kate Grenville delineates with a supremely even hand the unsayable that plagues the Australian nation, that of the Aboriginal people.There is no judgement passed, reader decide.
Sarah Waters presents a well concealed side of wartime London during the blitz in The Night Watch. Mea culpa, how often do I view this event through my middlebrow-literary-myth-coloured spectacles? Children of the 50's like me grew up on Sunday afternoon war films, The Dambusters, Reach for the Sky. Sarah Waters successfully pushed me into a greater honesty, a truer depiction of reality.
In The Emperor's Children Claire Messud fixes her novelist's gaze on the date that dare not speak its name, September 11th 2001.It is a difficult subject to broach without offending someone.
I happened to be on a third reading of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale at about the time and made what I thought was a sympathetic and tactful mention of the prescience of this about 3 years later in the context of an online reading list.I was roundly turned on by a US member of the group and very publicly chastised for my insensitivity in assuming that I could possibly have understood anything about the horrors of 9/11 because I lived in the UK. I was mortified and grovellingly apologetic for fear of an online bloodbath.
I'm actually a bit nervous mentioning it today to be honest and I hope upon hope I don't offend any of my US friends.
Explored through fiction perhaps the unsayable becomes safer, less threatening, a step removed, detached, easier to approach and discuss because after all it's not quite real, it's fiction.
A.N.Other's version of the truth served up in a palatable dish.
Claire Messud's utterly compelling and completely readable book follows a group of New York friends and families and their patriarch and figurehead, leading journalist of the day, Murray Thwaite, in the months leading up to 9/11. Into their midst comes Murray's nephew, the gauche, naive but utterly perceptive Frederick 'Booty' Tubbs. If truth is beauty then Booty has it within his grasp, not in his outwardly lardy appearance, but in his direct and honest vision into the lives of these people.
Think of the Emperor's new clothes and you are well on the way to understanding the legacy of a book entitled The Emperor's Children. In their hands rest the new ways of thinking if they can just have the courage to burst a few bubbles en route.
As always the author says it best and Claire Messud has summed up my perception of this genre on the Booker long list very succinctly with one incident in her book.
Booty is in the midst of trying to control a panic attack as he is stuck on a stationary train on the New York subway in the months before 9/11, others around him have their own methods for dealing with it too, but Booty has a eureka moment about his mission in life
"But his Earthworm Hour as he came to think of it, reinforced for him the opacity and isolation of his soul,and of everyone else's. It made clear to him the need to speak clearly, to try to be heard above all the blood rushing in people's ears. Nobody should be allowed to be the woman with the Walkman, wilfully blocking out experience and truth:it was Bootie's job to engage, and to speak.Not unintelligibly like the conductor, but in the clear voice of reason"
Poor idealistic Booty, he has so much to learn but his vision is 6/6 crystal clear on what must be done.
The 'clear voice of reason' resonates from the pages of the The Emperor's Children, confronting head on the 'blood rushing in people's ears' and, in the process, Claire Messud's book has the potential to open up some rational debates on aspects of the unsayable that surround 9/11 five years on.
Perhaps it even offers a chance to make this new ghost on the block a less burdensome and unsayable kind of haunting for future generations which makes it a very brave and important book indeed.