Monday, March 08, 2010

book review - All the Conspirators - Christopher Isherwood


"'You shouldn't talk so loud,'he said. 'As I came up the stairs, I heard every word.'
He left them, blankly standing. Mrs Lindsay looked foolish; but Joan was really frightned. She had, for the first time in her life, seen hatred on her brother's face."


The idea is a simple one in terms of a son wanting to get away from his mother, from the expectations that surround him. But it is of course more than that because this is done so skillfully that it extends beyond the boundaries of the struggles of the brother and sister Joan and Philip and their mother and starts to characterise a generation coming out of the First World War and wanting to live rather than stick with the drudgery of the nine to five.

At the heart of the story Philip, who works in the City, is struggling to throw off the shackles of his mother's expectations and spend his time painting and writing. The book starts with him having thrown his job in and having escaped to a hotel to escape his mother's wrath and start his new life. He is in the middle of a hatred between two mutual friends Victor and Allen. Victor, who is manipulated by Joan's mother into proposing to Philips's sister Joan, represents the stuffed shirted world of the past. Allen on the other hand, with his displays of drunkeness and questioning attitude perhaps signals an alternative.

But as Philip heads home waiting for him with her controlling ways is his mother Mrs Lindsay who gets him back into work and kills his dreams of leading a creative free-spirited life.

The quote chosen at the top is the moment when Philip walks into the room after hearing her discuss with Joan just how unlikely it is that Philip will ever escape from the destiny she has chosen for him.

He is even prepared to go to Africa to get away but the night before he is due to go he runs away and suffers a breakdown which lands him back in the clutches of his mother. She would rather have him broken but compliant.

Isherwood paints a 1920s world where the war is almost unmentioned but its presence leaves a shadow everywhere. Just like the fog he describes creeping up on people the sense of doubts and uncertianty about the future combine to make it feel uncomfortable even if there are people like Mrs Lindsay prepared to carry on as if nothing has happened.

The author's note at the start of this edition, where Isherwood is almost apoligising for his first novel, is a slightly odd start and it does take you time to recover. But once the story gets back in London and the fight with Mrs Lindsay starts in earnest the reader feels on firmer ground. It is perhaps firmer still because in the form of Mrs Lindsay Isherwood is describing a character that still lives and breathes and manipulates dreams and lives to this very day.

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