I’ve spent thirty years trying to say something to the woman who keened over him in the alley. I have tried, drunk and sober, to find the words. At some point I began to imagine the words as a spell that would release me from a curse. I broke her heart that day. I know that. I knew it at once from the sounds she was making. I think now that my heart must break too and only then will I know what to say to her.
My book club met this week (on Zoom) to talk about Andrew Miller’s The Slowworm’s Song. It’s the first time I’ve participated since Owen died. It was nice to see everyone’s friendly faces and have our usual lively and interesting conversation. It helped that it is such a good book—helped me, that is, because it isn’t easy yet for me to engage ‘normally,’ cheerfully, but I was genuinely keen to know what everyone thought about it. Everyone in the group is so kind, too, and we’ve been meeting for so long (over a decade, now!) that this was a good place to practice being more like myself again. Once we got started, it wasn’t that difficult after all.
The Slowworm’s Song is narrated by Stephen Rose, a former soldier traumatized by his actions in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He tells his story through letters to his daughter Maggie, with whom he has been belatedly and precariously building a relationship. He is prompted to write to her by the arrival of a request for him to testify in front of a commission of inquiry. The idea of bearing witness is central to The Slowworm’s Song: the need to speak the truth, and also the importance of being heard, and of listening. I wasn’t entirely sure that the epistolary set-up worked. There’s the element of artifice, for one thing (the novel does not really sound like it’s written by someone with Stephen’s history), but I wondered more about how directing what amounts to a confession to Maggie affects the novel’s themes. For example, it would have been a very different novel if we were reading, instead, the statement he prepared for the commission—not better, just different. His writing to Maggie ensures that our focus is more personal than political: that we think about the consequences of the kind of violence he is involved in for individuals, rather than in abstract or ideological terms.
One detail that intrigued me is why the Open University essay Stephen is writing off and on across the novel is about The Mill on the Floss. Maybe this is not particularly significant, but Mill isn’t the most obvious choice, and also one of Miller’s epigraphs is from George Eliot’s translation of Strauss, about how “all things are linked together by a chain of causes and effects which suffers no interruption.” And the protagonist’s name is Stephen and his daughter is Maggie, so those are also (maybe) Mill connections. However, the plot of The Mill on the Floss bears no resemblance to Miller’s novel and his Stephen and Maggie seem entirely unlike Eliot’s. All I have come up with so far is that Mill is very much about the ways circumstances constrain people’s choices, which often therefore end up being imperfect. Eliot’s determinism is backward-looking: it explains (which is not to say it excuses) those imperfect choices by examining their contexts. That’s true of The Slowworm’s Song too, as by the end we see Stephen’s bad choices as wholly explicable, given the contexts (personal, social, historical, etc.) in which he makes them. That seems kind of thin, though. Maybe I’m overthinking it.
The aspect of the novel that I found the most thought-provoking is that the act that precipitates Stephen’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and despair is (relatively speaking) quite a small-scale one. There’s a lot of build-up to it, a lot of manipulative anticipation created. In the lead-up to the revelation, we hear about a range of horrifying atrocities—booby-traps and bombs; gangs kidnapping, torturing, and murdering people; cold-blooded shootings of people pulled from their cars in front of their families—so it’s almost an anti-climax when we find out that what Stephen did (“all” Stephen did) was shoot an unarmed teenager. It happens during a house search, a routine but also very tense operation: everything, we have learned by this point, is unpredictable in Belfast, and being on edge is a way of life for the soldiers on patrol. Stephen is posted in the alley; when the boy comes out of the back door, all Stephen registers is that “his hands were not quite empty.” Afterwards, Stephen is encouraged to dwell on the perceived threat: “if I’d believed my life was in danger then I’d had every right to do as I did.” He does as he’s told, and in the end there are no formal consequences beyond his being relocated out of Ireland.
There are consequences, however, for Stephen, whose life spirals into ruin, and of course there are consequences for the boy’s family and, worst of all, for the boy himself, who it turns out, poignantly, was just holding his asthma inhaler. One thing we talked about in our group discussion was that precisely because it’s “just” one killing, the novel’s focus on its devastating after-effects forces a reckoning with the scale of devastation caused by war. Multiply that one death, that one loss-stricken family, that one young man traumatized by pilling the trigger, by thousands and it feels impossible to bear, much less to justify any of it. It’s only the omnipresence of violence, including its institutionalization in the military, that makes it possible to encounter that one death and think, for a minute, that it’s not much, not that big a deal. In fact, in its singularity, because of its singularity, that one death is everything that matters, as everyone who has lost a loved one knows. Large-scale catastrophes blur our attention to individual cases (as we know about deaths due to COVID, which have been shockingly normalized, in the aggregate). Like so much great war (anti-war) literature (All Quiet on the Western Front, for instance, or Testament of Youth) Miller’s story refuses to let us retreat into statistics. We get very little information about the boy and his family, but it’s enough—and for obvious reasons I felt this very deeply—to picture his mother keening over his body.
We debated whether Stephen too is meant to be understood as a victim. I think this comes back to the issue of cause and effect, and of how far an individual is responsible for decisions they make when the context of those decisions is very much outside their control. His training, his experiences up to that point in Belfast, the whole situation in Northern Ireland that put him there in the first place: it all matters, but in the end it is also his finger that pulls the trigger. Then in the aftermath, he gets no support, and the lack of real consequences hurts, rather than helps, because it is so morally destabilizing. Maybe it comes back to the point that explaining is not excusing. George Eliot knew that sympathy is not the same as forgiveness (here I think of Hetty in Adam Bede, though, not of anyone in The Mill on the Floss).
Miller seems quite interested in these questions of guilt and responsibility: at any rate, they are central to Now We Shall Be Entirely Free as well. I’ve read three of Miller’s novels now and would like to read more. His prose is not flashy but it has great resonance, and his stories are complicated—not their plots, but their problems, and their people. He’s good at pacing, too: once I started The Slowworm’s Song, I wanted to keep going, and lately that’s a rarity. Even so, I might not have managed it without some external obligation, so that’s another reason to be grateful for my book club. We settled on Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility for our summer read and we plan to meet in person, outside, to talk it over. I’m looking forward to it, and that seems like a small good thing.