The Children of Men & Sycamore

The Children of Men is a dystopian by PD James, who usually wrote mystery fiction.  This is definitely not a YA type of post-apocalyptic dystopian.  There is more of a quietness here.  This is a society winding down, at the end of its days.  Not going out with a bang, but more of a whimper.

The premise is that humans have stopped reproducing.  The last generation to be born was about 25 years ago.  Xan is the so-called, Warden of England, in reality an absolute ruler with his council.  The story is often told by Theo, Xan’s cousin, in flashbacks to his youth and diary entries.  Theo is approached by a group that rejects the rule of Xan and wants to reinstitute democracy, although their own agenda is rather muddled even among themselves.

The novel includes many christian references and themes starting with the title itself being lifted directly from the psalm,  “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”  Julian represents the Virgin Mary and a miracle birth.  Theo’s name is the Greek word for god.  The symbolism of water and baptism used throughout.  The character of Luke, both his name and the fact he is a priest.  The use of churches as meeting places and the name of the group as the five fishes are all part of openly pointing to the book as a Catholic allegory.

Beyond religion as a theme, there is the conflict between religion and science.  The idea is laid out in the beginning that science has failed to halt the death of man.  That scientists around the world have been unable to find an answer and continue to search to no avail.  PD James clearly wanted the message to be that somethings are beyond man’s control.

The other major theme explored here is the corruption of power or “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.   Xan and his council began at the will of the people and with each new dictate gained more power and became more and more oppressive.  There is also an idea of people being complicit in their own oppression.  Willingly trading freedoms, for comfort and pleasure.

I am not religious at all, but I enjoyed this book greatly.  I find it difficult to explain this dichotomy other than to say that PD James managed to  write  an obviously pro-faith book in a way that was not preachy and did not feel like a sermon at all.

I don’t really remember why I checked Sycamore out of the library.  I must have had a recommendation from somewhere.  This would be considered a mystery.  The novel follows two time lines, past and present.  In the past, Maud and her teen daughter, Jess, moved to Sycamore, a small town, and lived there until Jess inexplicably disappeared after some small town scandal.  In the present Laura, who just moved to town to recover from her divorce and make a new start, literally stumbles upon Jess’s remains.

There are quite a few characters that you meet in the past and in the present chapters both.  The main idea here is to explore how one person’s disappearance impacted multiple people in this small town for years.  It is as though they were in a state of stasis, waiting, even though they weren’t sure for what.  Then, Jess’s body is discovered and everyone wakes up and finally begins to move on.

The major themes explored here are grief, loss and regret.  All these were tied up with the death of Jess and the events immediately prior to it.  Also, I would suppose secrets, since many people didn’t reveal things they knew about the night of her disappearance.

There are some good ideas here and some good parts to this novel.  The characters of Jess, Maud and Roberto in particular are interesting and draw you into their stories.  Others characters just didn’t have enough time devoted to them in order to develop their stories.  I don’t know if the solution was to have fewer characters and develop them more fully or make the book longer.  I did really enjoy Jess’s story and finding out what happened to her.


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