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Sunday, May 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Book Review

"The Optimists": Blindsided by evil, groping for goodness

Seattle Times book critic

"The Optimists"
by Andrew Miller
Harcourt, 313 pp., $24

A suspense novel about running away from nightmare knowledge — that's what British fiction writer Andrew Miller has delivered with his canny, powerful fourth book.

"The Optimists" concerns a 40-year-old London photojournalist who is trying to come to grips with the aftermath of a church massacre he witnessed in a country that closely resembles the genocidal Rwanda of 1994. That experience, along with an unforeseen family crisis, sends Miller's protagonist on the run from Africa to London, Scotland, Toronto and finally Brussels, where the instigator of the massacre may be hiding. All the while the book asks how we can or should act on knowledge of such evils.

Miller draws you directly into the turbulence with which his hero alternately avoids and tries to find a way to absorb the horrors he's seen. The result is a narrative that is alive, unpredictable and stirringly deep as it addresses the struggles of a man in crisis.

From the moment he returns to his London neighborhood near the Grand Union Canal, Clem Glass is off-balance: "The canal he learned to avoid. The water was too still, too black: he was afraid of what might appear in it. It would not take much. A plastic bag crumpled into the form of a face. A piece of driftwood mistaken for a hand."

With similar terse, photographic touches, Miller makes it clear that Clem is headed toward crackup. Desire has fled him; the city around him seems more hallucination than tangible reality. When Clem contemplates renewing relations with a casual girlfriend, the sex he envisages has little to do with any feelings he has for her and everything to do with trying to overcome the images of massacre that keep replaying in his mind: "He would pull the thorn from his eye. She would pull the thorn from his eye. He would get free of this thing before he no longer knew how to." (That image of a wound to the eye becomes a leitmotif of the novel, cropping up in varied contexts.)

Clem's crisis, however, is relegated to the back burner when his older sister Clare, an art historian teaching at Dundee, suffers a nervous collapse similar to one she went through as a university student. Clem, drawing on empty reserves, becomes her caretaker, guiding her back to health at his aunt's rural retreat near Bath.

Just when it seems as though a sleepy country idyll might solve everyone's problems, news comes that the suspected perpetrator of the church massacre has been spotted in Brussels. Clem, far from wanting to flee memory now, wants to confront the man — but his abrupt efforts to do so suggest he's in danger of losing all sense of boundaries and decency himself.

Miller orchestrates Clem's flailing movements impeccably. He also arrays around him various sorts of optimism, as though to place before him a broader tapestry of human possibilities. Some of this positive energy is flaky in nature (a man who talks Clem into helping him scatter "good-news" postcards around Bath). Some of it is desperate enough in motivation to be thoroughly affecting (a journalist with whom Clem covered the massacre quits the business and tries to lose himself in charity work in Toronto).

Clem and Clare's parents also offer two contrasting examples of optimistic engagement. Their mother, a social activist, died young without ever letting her glaucoma-caused blindness (more eye trouble) slow her down. Their father, retired to the famous lay-brothers' community on Lindisfarne, finds in his religious faith a force for the positive that neither of his children can share. For one thing, any sliver of optimism embraced by Clem would have to take into account the net sum of a balance between action (brutal photos as alarm bells) and exploitation (brutal photos as career milestones).

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"The Optimists" offers no simple answers to the questions it poses. But it takes on its chosen terrain head-on and renders it into a shifting, complex fiction that brings those questions, which we all deal with on one level or another, into sharp focus.

Miller won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 1997 for his debut novel "Ingenious Pain." His third novel, "Oxygen," was short-listed for both the Whitbread Award and Man Booker Prize. It will be a great surprise if "The Optimists" doesn't get nominated for similar honors.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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