|Jan/Feb 2006 Book Reviews|
One of the things that has always puzzled me about war and our society (and I mean the global society), is that we never seem to figure out that even the winners end up losing. If you send people off to fight a war they do not return the same as when they left. Most of them are damaged, broken, or worse in a myriad of physical, psychological and emotional ways. And the ones who claim to return unscathed are often the biggest losers--wouldn't you prefer a soldier who is disturbed by killing rather than one who wraps himself in the flag and claims that killing people he doesn't know is "just doing my job?"
In a lot of ways the world really is a lousy place.
Andrew Miller has crafted his latest novel The Optimists around two siblings, one of whom is a photojournalist who has recently returned from Africa. Miller points out in an Author's Note at the end that although the book's central moment, a massacre in an unnamed church, is based on a "well-documented atrocity in Rwanda in 1994" the book is not about the genocide that occurred in that county. It is instead about what happens when you witness man's darkest moments, when you do your job and record what has happened, when you take names and photographs and act as the consummate professional in an environment that has lost all evidence of humanity. It is about those who have seen war and then return home. And what Miller tells his readers, is that no one is ever okay.
In The Optimists, Clem Glass is back from Africa and struggling to regain some sense of normalcy. He cannot seem to bring himself to return to his career but is equally unwilling to admit just what has gone wrong in his life. He is lost, but does not know why. At the same time his brilliant academic sister Clare has suffered a breakdown of sorts, something that occurred years before. Clem feels duty bound to assist her and the plot follows his struggle to help Clare return from the frightening vision of the world she has lost herself in. He enlists the help of family and friends in this endeavor, one of whom has the endearing habit of writing good news on postcards and leaving them in public places all over town to be discovered later by strangers. Ultimately though Clare must decide to heal herself and whether or nor Clem can create a secure environment for that is uncertain throughout the book. He is, after all, barely able to take care of himself, so if he is up for the challenge presented by his older sister is anyone's guess. Watching both of them try to enjoy the world again makes for very tender reading, and an excellent character study into just how fragile human beings can be.
I have a feeling that I am not doing Miller's book justice with this review and I'm really not sure how to fix that. It is a very elegantly written book, very understated in its choice of language and character studies. Miller manages to describe horrible events without making them seem gratuitous or a side show and when Clem confronts the man he believes to be a monster, the reality of that meeting will seem all too familiar to those who have witnessed the travel of former dictators and fiends to The Hague. Miller wants you to read about Clem and Clare and the people they care about and understand what motivates them; what has affected each of them in such complete ways. He wants you to think about what we do to each other in this world without even realizing it. Really, Andrew Miller has written a book in which he wants you to think. It's not a laughing kind of book he has crafted, but it is certainly a thoughtful one. Days later, I'm still thinking about it, and wishing that such books never needed to be written.