‘A slightly disappointing novel’ – All is Song by Samantha Harvey

All is Song is Harvey’s second novel.  Her first The Wilderness was shortlisted for the Orange Prize and The Guardian First Book Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize.

All is Song is a philosophical novel about the relationship between brothers William and Leonard.  In the year preceding the start of the story, Leonard has nursed his dying father, a vicar, in Scotland.  As a result of this, the relationship between Leonard and his girlfriend has ended and he has now come to London to live with William.  William did not attend his father’s funeral.  Their father suspected that William has a mental disorder and in the story he appears as some kind of philosopher, constantly questioning, something the other characters find both unnerving and irritating at times.  William believes that peace and happiness can be achieved by self knowledge and that seems to be at the root of his philosophy.  As Leonard returns to London and moves in with William and his wife and children, he hopes to renew his friendship with his brother and perhaps come to some understanding of him.  But William has already set himself on a different path that threatens both him and his wife and children.  A former lecturer, he now holds informal meetings with his ex students at the Bellevue.  The main action of the story centres around William’s friendship with one of his followers, a man who commits an act of criminal damage in which William may be culpable. Although told from Leonard’s point of view, this story is about William and the choice he makes (consciously or not) to question everything rather than follow a more conformist path.  It is an examination of goodness and how we behave in society.

Harvey’s prose is wonderful in places and she has a real skill for looking at the world in a different way, but at times the lengthy philosophical arguments between Leonard and William became too overwhelming for this reader.  William never gives a straightforward answer to any question.  Instead, he seeks always to follow a question with another question until both his opponent and the reader are worn out.  William’s friend, Jonathan says of him:

‘William swims upstream, not always, and not on purpose, but it’s who he is, and there’ll always be people who don’t understand or accept him.’

Like his father before him, as the novel progresses, the more time Leonard spends with William the more he comes to share his father’s anxieties about William’s state of mind.  Indeed, Leonard struggles to understand what it is that William is trying to achieve with his arguments and the decisions he makes.

This is a novel where the form of it mimics the point.  The lengthy philosophical arguments, especially in the first half of the book, are the story rather than any plot or character development which would for me make for a more satisfying novel.  In the second half, the plot picks up as Leonard watches his brother on his self destructive path and the urge to read on grows as we wait to see how William will deal with the accusations against him.  However, it was a little too late in the day for me.  Ultimately I feel that the structure of the book lets it down.  There just isn’t enough shape to it to hold it together and that makes it a difficult read.  William is annoying as a character and difficult to like or understand (which is probably the point).  Of course it isn’t essential that the reader likes the character, but I feel there has to be something that the reader can engage with, but here William’s endless questioning just becomes repetitive.  As a reader I find it satisfying to see the character changed in some way by the dénouement, but here William is the same throughout.

There are some satisfying parts to the story, the religious aspects I liked in particular, as they weren’t too obvious and echoed throughout in both imagery, character and plot.  Their father was a vicar and the moments when Leonard and William sit together to watch an old CCTV video from the church hoping to catch a glimpse of him are touching and poignant.   A couple of Salvadorean crosses that William keeps in his room add some colour to a story that otherwise seems strangely lacking in it.  William with his trances and his disciple like followers and constant prayer unites all the religious imagery in a way that is structurally satisfying.

The novel is set in North London and although the setting is obvious, it is at the same time elusive and I had no real sense of the story’s location being central or important to the plot.    The Bellevue is perhaps partly the cause of this.  I imagine that Harvey wished this place to be mysterious and unsettling. It seems to be some kind of unused cafe with living space above and is the initial setting for the story and where William holds his meetings.  For this reader, this place in particular didn’t have enough behind it to make me really see it or even fully understand it, even though I read over the sections detailing it a number of times.

Any Cop?:  Although I applaud Harvey for attempting such a difficult novel when she could have tried something more commercial to follow her earlier success, for me it didn’t quite work.  A little more plot and stronger character development and a little less endless question and answer sessions between Leonard and William would have done it, and turned what is in fact a slightly disappointing novel into the novel I had hoped for.

Julie Fisher

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