Entertainment Books

Sunday 21 September 2014

Never never land takes on quality of a nightmare

Debut novelist Miller offers a sparkling blend of moral fable and thriller, writes Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger

Published 23/11/2008 | 00:00

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Lost Boys

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James Miller

Little Brown €19.45

The television listings last Christmas contained a wholesome, warm dramatisation of the relationship between the author JM Barrie and the young Llewelyn Davis boys whom he befriended and out of whose childish make-believe he constructed his greatest success, Peter Pan And the Lost Boys. Peter Pan was the boy who never grew up and while Edwardian classics such as Peter Pan were seemingly about childhood freedom, they were also about ensnarement, too. The adult Christopher Robin Milne never forgave his father for immortalising him and wanted nothing to do with royalties from Winnie the Pooh. Even as an old man, he just wanted his own identity back. We will never know what some of the original Llewelyn Davis boys who inspired Barrie wanted in old age, because George -- the eldest -- died of a gunshot wound to the head in Flanders, aged 21, and Michael -- on whom the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is modelled -- died aged 20, in what was either an accidental double drowning or a suicide pact with his possible lover, Rupert Buxton, in 1921.

Such shadows have always left aspects of Peter Pan open to darker interpretations than its initial audience placed upon it, and the core aspects of Peter Pan have never been so thoroughly subverted and as chillingly and menacingly reinvented as by James Miller in this, his debut novel.

Miller's novel opens with a quote from Peter Pan, "he distinctively remembered ... that he had lain in bed planning to escape as soon as his mother was asleep." The reality of a child's disappearance moves it beyond any fairy tale into the realm of nightmare and Miller's book possesses a quality of nightmare. But this is just one of many qualities and genres jostling for supremacy on these pages, and Barrie just one of the predecessors from whom Miller deliberately borrows.

There are nods to J G Ballard, Golding and William Burroughs in this novel that is part fable, part thriller, part reflection on moral corruption within Western political culture, part supernatural horror story and part allegoric reinvention of a familiar tale made terribly and starkly new.

It could be argued that in trying too hard to make too many statements, Miller rather bites off more than he can chew, and a shorter book might have worked better in not having to straddle so many real and unreal worlds. However, ambition is good in a new writer and Miller has ambition, confidence and talent in spades. When oil executive Arthur Dashwood returns to London after being released by kidnappers in Baghdad, he seems to be leaving behind the horrors of Iraq. Life in upper middle class London is good, with a foreign au pair to mind his two boys, the eldest of whom, Timothy, is on the cusp of adolescence and obsessed with an ultra-violent computer game based on the war between the well-equipped American led forces in Iraq and ragged but determined bands of insurrectionists.

He is bullied at school but more worryingly, classmates have started to mysteriously vanish, beckoned away by a boy with Arab features who haunts their dreams, who appears briefly at the end of gardens and sometimes glimpsed by adults.

These middle-class boys disappear into thin air, though there are occasional security footage glimpses of them outside Tube stations, in an echo of the London bombers. But there are dozens of echoes in this book that is at times chillingly horrific but at other times slow-paced, with the plot barely advancing.

A private detective (named Buxton, like Michael Llewelyn Davis's friend) makes some tapes, then disappears. Haunted by grief and guilt about his role in Iraq, the father winds up in an S&M basement that would make Max Mosley blush. But his real punishment, and the West's punishment, the author suggests, is that the childhood whimsy of Peter Pan has become cold nightmare, with children not just slipping physically beyond their parent's reach, but mentally and emotionally, too.

The children are gone to no Never Never Land to fight pirates, but to take part in an insurrection in an Iraq-like landscape with unarmed children against American tanks, with communities of lost boys in derelict buildings being hunted down.

In Lost Boys, while the fact of the oddly named "War on Terror" may not be resolved, the West has lost the hearts and souls of its young. Miller's characters don't always come to life, burdened by the messages they have to carry, but this is an original book that refuses to be corralled into any neat genre or provide any neat conclusion. For all the brilliance of its writing, it lacks the pivotal moment in Peter Pan when the audience shout that they believe it. But Miller is willing to take the risks and ask the awkward questions about the moral mire that we are in.

Dermot Bolger's play about contemporary Dublin, The Consequences of Lightning, runs at the Axis Theatre, Ballymun (01) 883-2100 from November 26 to December 6.

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