Wednesday 5 January 2022


'Bewilderment' by Richard Powers is definitely a book worthy of inclusion on the Booker shortlist. In it Theo and Robin struggle with life without Aly, but that is not their only struggle. As Robin decides to continue his mother's fight to save the planet's wildlife Theo must battle the authorities for the soul of his son; Robin's increasingly erratic behaviour is causing concern that may lead to 'medication'. Theo's job involves the search for life on other planets, and he creates a game with his son where they imagine that they are exploring alternate realities, possible lifeforms across the galaxy that manage to exist in the most unlikely of circumstances. Robin continues to have problems controlling his anger and frustration so Theo turns to Martin Currier, a former colleague (and lover) of Aly who does brain research, and the boy takes part in a study involving mapping brain patterns of emotional states. The technique helps him enormously, and he in return contributes to the research. In attempting to balance protecting Robin from the pressures of a system that does not wish to accommodate him with the need to be a professor they discover the joys of home schooling; they jump through the curriculum hoops that the state requires and leave Robin free to pursue his passion for endangered animals.  When Martin asks to use Robin's experience in his research to help with his funding Theo reluctantly agrees, and that's when things get a bit out of control, with consequences that might have been anticipated. 

A beautiful book, intense and emotionally fraught. Lots of obscure science stuff, that may or may not have any basis in reality, but you can imagine that it does. It feels like the fate of the planet is in the hands of this boy, he takes the weight of the world on himself, and it squashes him. I liked that he was bright and precocious, but also a child, with the way that children can experience things so intensely, and feel so intensely their smallness and weakness in the face of the powers that control. And his father supported him in what he was trying to do, in spite of his smallness and weakness, he made him believe it was worth trying. And then hopes are crushed all round and the reality of the world come crashing in and I cried.

The trials of being a parent loom large in the book, and that is what really sucked me in:
"But it turns out children have a tolerance for mistakes that I never imagined. Who's have believed a four-year-old could pull a grill full of hot charcoal down onto himself and walk away with no lasting harm beyond a brand like a shiny pink oyster on his lower back.
On the other hand, the ways of going wrong never fail to stun me. I once read my six-year-old The Velveteen Rabbit and only learned from my eight-year-old about the months of nightmares it had given him. Two years of night terrors he's been too ashamed to tell me about: that was Robin. God only knows what the eleven-year-old might confess to me about the things I was right now doing wrong. But he'd survived his mother's death. I figured he'd survive my best intentions.
I lay in our tent that night, thinking how Robbie had spent two days worrying over the silence of the galaxy that ought to be crawling with civilizations. How could anyone protect a boy like that from his own imagination, let alone from a few carnivorous third-graders flinging shit at him? Alyssa would've propelled the three of us forward on her own bottomless forgiveness and bulldozer will. Without her, I was flailing.
I twitched in my sleeping bag, trying not to wake Robin. A chorus of invertebrates swelled and ebbed. Two barred owls traded their call-and-response: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? Who would ever cook for this boy, aside from me? I couldn't imagine Robin toughening up enough to survive this Ponzi scheme of a planet. Maybe I didn't want him to. I liked him otherworldly. I liked having a son so ingenuous that it rattled his smug classmates. I enjoyed being the father of a kid whose favourite animal for three straight years had been a nudibranch. Nudibranchs are deeply underappreciated.
Late-night anxieties of an astrobiologist. I smelled the trees respiring and heard the river where Alyssa and I first swam together, polishing its boulders even in darkness. A noise came from the bag next to me. Robin was pleading in his sleep. Stop! Please stop! Please!" (p29-30)

Stay safe. Be kind. Get tested. (We finally had covid here last week, it can strike even the fully vaccinated.)

1 comment:

  1. I read The Overstory and was very much affected by it. So will read this one too.

    Thank you for reminding me of this book - also for your nice comment on my blog.


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