Thursday 23 May 2024



'There were certain things to be said in favour of drinking in the mornings. He had discovered, quite by accident, that it could be a fine thing, on a grey, dismal morning, - a morning of limp, oyster-coloured weather - to be gently, but firmly drunk, making a pleasure of melancholy.'

Having listened to the fabulous radio drama of the book over at bbc sounds, I couldn't resist giving the book a read and I'm so glad I did. It arrived on Monday in the post and I dived straight in. 

The novel was published just before I was born and so, in many ways, is dealing with a period of time that I don't fully know. That said, the state of the world's health and the precarious nature of civilisation now and during my lifetime haven't changed a great deal and we may still require help as a species if we're going to find the best way forward. 

I'm sure many of you have been here already, but for those who haven't, Newton appears on Earth selling diamond rings to raise funds. With apparent ease, he sets up in business with a patent specialist and sets about putting his plan into action. After accumulating many millions of dollars, he begins his project: the building of a spaceship that he intends to send to his planet Anthea to save whoever is left and bring them here. Anthea has suffered from endless wars that have all but desroyed Newton's home and the making of this ship is a last-gasp attemtp to rescue his people. 

In order to protect himself from the public eye, he becomes close to only a few. There's Betty Jo, a nurse/housekeeper who has a simple charm, warmth and plain way about her, and Nathan Bryce, a chemist who worked for a time with Oppenheimer to help produce nuclear weapons and who has since struggled to find meaning or forgiveness in his life. They're excellent foils for Newton and, because each of them like a tipple, Newton soon becomes addicted to alcohol.

Of course, humans being humans, it's never going to be easy for Newton to complete his mission. Greed, suspicion, arrogance and a lust for power provide significant obstacles. These obstacles are the developments you'll need to discover for yourself.    

Tevis sets all this up with aparent ease. There's never a moment where belief needs to be suspended and I was hooked from the wonderful opening. He builds up the conflicts and plot in terrific style, jumping between points of view and layering the characters beautifully. 

Newton is quite someting. He possesses a gentle grace and brittle charm that is absolutely endearing. His thinking patterns and way of being make him vulnerable. His knowledge and love of art, history and culture allows him to develop a genuine fondness for the human species, in spite of all its flaws. His brittle frame and love of solitude, the sense of alienation he carries with such stoicism, the delicate phrasing of his words, the insight and the existential angst that trouble him endlessly, that love of the anaesthetic that is drink, all of these things make him a tragic and noble figure. For me, there are faint echoes of Gatsby and Nick Carrway in the relationship between Newton and Bryce, but that could simply be because of the gin and martinis. 

And what's it all about? The meaning of life, perhaps. A warning about the hazards of filling the world with weapons and putting them in the hands of complete and utter nutters. A reminder that the world's resources are pretty special and that we're lucky to have them. The human condition. A mention that, to many of us, life makes no sense and yet we need to find purpose. A hint that if we can't find purpose, there are positive and negative ways in which we can distract ourselves. A celebration of the things that people have created in art and science. A reminder that dignity and honesty are qualities that should go a long way. And perhaps there's another message in there about looking after those who are differnent that ourselves, to give people space and room to breathe, remember that everyone is carrying packs of different weights and sizes and if we can help share that load along the way, it might just be a very good thing. 

Whatever the main themes, I adored it. There were a couple of chapters of introspection that put the brakes on the story more than I'd have liked, but that's a minor point.  

Pure class.

First thing I did once I got over the emotional turbulence created by the ending was to order a copy of Mockingbird from the library. The sooner it gets across the county and into my hands, the better. 

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