Kevin Saving on
The Big Idea
by Antony Archdeacon
If, as according to Henry Thoreau we do, most of us 'live lives of quiet desperation' then this (first) novel by Antony Archdeacon depicts the lives - during the course of one summer - of two people whose 'desperation' is certainly of the quiet, understated kind. John Penry-Hudson is a 58 year old Q.C., seemingly 'passed over' for a seat on The Bench. He inhabits a 'gloriously comfortable house' in the stockbroker belt with his slightly younger wife, 'Phyllis'. Their problem is that their marriage has grown stale. Phyllis spends an increasing amount of time with her mother in Yorkshire, whilst the couple's two sons have grown up and moved out.
It is against this background that John has his 'Big Idea': he will sell up surreptitiously and transfer to a near-Utopian, rather paternalistic country - the slightly unconvincing 'Grundia' (fairly obviously located in post-colonial Africa). Here he will find a new life, a superior climate and a differing culture - in which, incidentally, his money will buy a great deal more. Phyllis will be 'taught a lession' and left to fend for herself, bereft of many of the previous advantages bestowed upon her by her (cold-fish) husband. It is to Phyllis that the reader's sympathy more naturally extends - f it extends at all.
Their story, which hovers on the brink of an old-fashioned morality tale, is enlivened by several factors. Firstly, Archdeacon tells his tale in plain, unadorned prose (without too many of the highly figurative riffs which have become almost de rigueur in more fashionable fiction). Secondly, his own career as a lawyer has provided a wealth of telling details on both the arcana of legal practice and the lifestyles of its practitioners. Lastly, and perhaps less consciously, the whole book is suffused by a kind of unrepentant materialism. John laments the fact that he has attained merely the status of a 'millionaire, but not [that of] a multi-millionaire'. He covets a large library, but it is unclear whether the books are there to read or for show. He has grown estranged from each of his sons, who despite 'having enjoyed every conceivable advantage through his efforts alone, were much closer to their mother'. Archdeacon equips his protagonist with a whole panoply of paraphernalia but, alas, with little or no heart.
If occasionally guilty of some of the solecisms which a more experienced novelist might avoid (moments when, for example, Penry-Hudson 'froze with horror' or, perhaps, when he 'sat down with a face that resembled a large question mark'), Archdeacon, nonetheless, writes engagingly enough. Without being especially 'moved' by either of his two principal charactors, I found myself reading to the end in order to ascertain not-so-much if they found 'happiness' (either together or alone) -but, rather, what the preconditions for this 'happiness' might possibly be.
Kevin Saving © 2011