A Children’s Bible – Lydia Millet

One of the blurbs describe this as a “funny dystopia” and I can see why, though I feel that would be a misleading way to describe the book. The setup is not dystopian – it seems to be the present day, with a large group of families taking an extended holiday in a country house. Maybe the children would consider it a dystopia though – the adults seem to be various combinations of stupid, selfish and feckless. They seem a bit cartoonish and unrealistic to me, but maybe I’m just lucky to have mostly avoided such people in my life.

The novel focuses on the children (the narrator is 14-year-old Eve) and their dealings with each other and their useless parents. This is all fascinating and drily amusing. At some point the kids decide to leave and set up camp for a little while. Around that time a long-brewing monster storm hits and that’s when everything really gets going. The kids are tough and resourceful and everyone survives despite massive storm damage to everything. But the storm has crippled infrastructure across the country and that’s when things start to get dystopian: this being the USA, there are roving bands of gun-toting lunatics going around causing trouble and providing the villains of the story.

So things look pretty hopeless in the second act. Around that point the novel drifts towards magic realism, even fantasy, and definitely allegory. I like the way the tone changes – it’s nicely handled and it keeps things interesting and not too neat. Bible parallels are woven throughout the story – Noah’s ark, Jesus’ crucifixion, all your favourites – and salvation comes from an unexpected deus ex machina.

Eve’s little brother Jack continues a tradition of serious, wise little brothers in fiction (and maybe in real life, speaking myself as a serious and wise younger brother). He is clever – he and his friend decode the symbolism in the titular children’s Bible – but he is also very likeable. In fact all the younger characters are likeable. Most of the adults are pretty two-dimensional – this novel is written from the kids’ point of view and when you’re a kid, adults do tend to seem like annoying cardboard cutouts. They are mostly just backdrop anyway, something for the protagonists to struggle against, like the weather or the landscape. Eventually their struggle is successful, and while the end of the novel is not clear-cut, it is satisfyingly optimistic.

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