Book 12 of my #20booksofsummer21

So maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine

A Children’s Bible (2020) by the US writer Lydia Millet focuses on a group of families who have rented a large house on the coast for the summer. The parents are disengaged and mostly drunk, while the children are left to amuse – or should that be fend for – themselves. The action is recounted from the first-person perspective of teenager Eve, as climate disaster unfolds.

The parents are presented as passive liabilities: self-satisfied, entitled, self-indulgent, fat, they drink cocktails all day, listen to bad music and dance embarrassingly. They are basically me!

The descriptions of the adults, presented in the novel’s trademark spare, unflinching style, are darkly comic. The image of them indulging themselves in scenes of Nero-esque bacchanalia while Rome effectively burns works well as an allegory of the middle-aged complacency that I am accused of by my own children in my apparent refusal to face up to the current climate emergency, distracted instead by the more immediate distractions of a new summer jumpsuit or a nicely mixed Sbagliato.

The children meanwhile are more tuned in, and more importantly, they have agency: time after time they make use of their pretty impressive survival skills to escape treacherous situations, while the parents, a sort of indistinguishable bovine mass, turn away from the reality staring in them the face for as long as they possibly can, in one scene just deciding to blot it all out by taking a cartload of Ecstasy and having threesomes.

Although often bored, or at the mercy of others or of outside events, and caught between stasis and the need for action, the young people devise routines that they use to structure their days, while the parents – used to their made-up non-jobs (creating art installations, writing niche academic papers read by five other academics, making crappy films) – are bribed and coerced into co-operation, and are increasingly regarded as a liability.

“[The parents] made Sukey hand over her sister for a day, so they could ‘have some cute baby time’ (gag). She protested, but we decided the prize was probably legit. Sukey submitted to the majority, then paced back and forth most of that day, worrying the parents would wreck the baby.

Her sister was barely two months old, said Jen. How much damage could they actually do?

Sukey retorted that they couldn’t be trusted with child-rearing. On that front we had to agree.”

Just before the terrible storm that changes things for the characters of this novel for ever, Eve’s much-loved nine-year-old brother Jack is presented with an illustrated children’s bible by one of the featureless adults. He is inspired to assemble a menagerie of wild animals in a sort of arborial Ark, including an owl with an apparently broken wing, the first in a series of biblically-inspired events (which even include a birth scene in a stable).

‘”Hey Evie!”, called Jack. He’d just come out of the barn, Shel tagging along behind him. “We took the bandage off. He flies!”

A blur of bird flew away from them onto the roof. It landed and perched on the peak.

Fast healing, was what struck me first.

What struck me second was, maybe the bandage had actually been the culprit.

I mean, they were little kids. Not vets.”

Millet’s deceptively straightforward, witty prose makes this a page-turning, swift read — the novel is relatively short, at 224 well-spaced pages in my edition, and cannot be pigeonholed as a work of bandwagon-jumping ‘cli-fi’. A Children’s Bible was a National Book Award finalist, and has been shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2021.

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