A review of the new novel by Alison Miller
New Statesman, 1st November 2005
We live in turbulent times. Tens of millions are rising
up against neoliberalism. Here in the UK, over a million
take to the streets to oppose the Iraq war and schoolchildren
play truant to defy Tony Blair. Voters may be deserting
the polling stations but politics, paradoxically, is
alive and kicking.
So where is its literature? Why is so much contemporary
fiction still so depressingly post-modern and narcissistic?
Is Ian McEwan's Saturday - radical politics as
seen through the eyes of a smug, north London bore -
the best we're going to get?
I have an interest to declare here: seven years ago
I wrote what I was convinced was a brilliant and mould-breaking
political novel about the road protest movement. Publishers
thought otherwise, and it's still in my bottom drawer,
which in retrospect saved everyone concerned a lot of
embarrassment. But the question I wanted to answer now
seems even more urgent: where are all the political
Alison Miller's Demo is an attempt to answer
that question. In doing so it unintentionally demonstrates
why there aren't many around.
Clare is a sixteen year old teenager from Glasgow. As
the novel opens she is about to leave her sturdy, working-class
parents to take the bus to an anti-war, anti-globalisation
demo in Florence, with her brother Danny. On the way
they hook up with Danny's friend Julian, a public-school
trustafarian, and his equally posh former girlfriend,
The plot signposts are well-painted from the start and,
sure enough, Clare's soon in bed with posh Julian, having
her virginity forcibly stolen and her political awareness
raised. Meanwhile, Danny is off with Laetitia, all of
them spending sweaty afternoons in hotel bedrooms when
they should be out on the streets bringing down capitalism.
Naturally, everything goes horribly wrong; Julian and
Laetitia get back together, Clare leaves in a huff,
Danny gets chippy about southern ponces and capitalism
remains sturdily unabolished.
The rest of the novel follows their progress, through
the eyes of the two women, as they bump into each other
in various flats, cafes and anti-Bush'n'Blair demonstrations.
I won't reveal what happens at the end, both because
it would be unfair to potential readers and, to be honest,
because I can't quite remember.
And this, unfortunately, is the problem: it's hard to
care. Clare is a feisty enough heroine, but she's not
interesting enough to carry the story and her Glasgae
dialect is a bit wearing after a while, all shouldny
and isny and hame. Julian, meanwhile, is a cardboard
cut-out toff, as unconvincing as he is annoying; there
mainly, it seems, to provide a foil for proley Clare
and Danny - less educated, less wordly but, of course,
ultimately better people.
Laetitia is not much better, and their various posh
friends are even worse. Have you ever met anyone who
introduced themselves as 'Douglas
moniker amid the college cloisters'? On an anti-capitalist
demonstration? All the middle-class crusties I've ever
met affected cockney accents for fear of being exposed
as bourgeois - the second-worst crime in the activist
world, after reformism.
Demo is not a terrible book - it's just not a
good one. Some of Miller's writing can be effective,
particularly when she voices Clare. The problem is that
it's hard to escape the suspicion that the plot, and
most of the characters, are there as a clumsy framework
on which to hang the politics. All the boxes are certainly
ticked: globalisation, the killing of Carlo Giuliani
at Genoa, Palestine, the dilemmas of a teenage Muslim
girl in modern Britain, the decline of union power,
the Butler report
But why does Clare care about
any of it? Why does Julian? Why, come to that, does
Clare care about Julian, who first rapes her and then
acts like a punchable cretin for the next three years?
Herein lies the dilemma of the 'political' novelist.
If it wasn't for the Politics, with a capital P, this
novel could perhaps have been made to work; Miller could
have focussed more on making the characters believable,
and on telling a story led by them rather than imposed
onto them. Yet if it wasn't for the Politics, this novel
would have no reason to exist. One of these days we'll
get a political novelist who will be able to square
this circle. For now, though, we're still waiting.