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An anti-capitalist novel?


By Alison Miller,

Hamish Hamilton, 2005, £12.99

Reviewed by

Phil Burton-Cartledge

THE SO-CALLED popular politics sections of many a bookshop are saturated with titles pitched, in a variety of ways, at an anti-capitalist audience. Some reply to the ‘no-alternative’ mantras of apologists for global capital. Others offer theories and analyses that seek to influence the direction of the movement. Then there are radical travelogues, which see our author(s) embark on journeys around the world in search of diverse and ‘exotic’ examples of resistance. However there has been a slight gap in this burgeoning literature: novels.

Into this space comes Alison Miller’s Demo, a piece of work described in the blurb as "a stylish, intimate and politically charged novel of our times". The story begins with Clare Kilkenny, a 16-year-old schoolgirl who accompanies Danny, her older brother to the inaugural European Social Forum gathering in Florence in November 2002. In Glasgow the duo hook up with Julian, a dreadlocked southern acquaintance of Danny’s, and in Florence with Laetitia, Julian’s some-time partner. The novel turns around these four characters with the authorial voice switching between the two women as a variety of plotlines progress.

These threads unfurl themselves over three parts. The first section focuses on the developing relationships between Clare and Julian and particularly his visceral seduction of her, set against the backdrop of demonstrations and activity. Laetitia’s experiences of Florence are dealt with in the second part as she takes over the narration. She meditates on the complex affections she feels for Danny (who she had a brief fling with at the ESF) and Julian. Returning home she uncovers the journal of her Aunt Laetitia, a long-dead namesake whose radicalism around the Suffragettes and hint of hidden lesbianism proves enthralling, drawing Laetitia into her life. She continuously reflects on this as she travels to Glasgow to spend time with Julian as the anti-war mood begins to intensify. The final part of the book switches between Clare and Laetitia as the pace picks up and hurls the characters from the February 15, 2003 demo in Glasgow to Clare, sitting on a bus, in January 2005.

It is in the final part that Miller introduces a new thread: Farkhanda, Clare’s best friend and a Muslim. Clare relates how Farkhanda started wearing the hijab in the aftermath of September 11. Both see this as an affirmation of her identity in the face of widespread Islamophobia rather than bowing to reactionary religious currents. This is not to say Clare comes to this view without any problems. Miller portrays Farkhanda as someone trying to strike a balance in her life: scenes such as her assisting Clare with Julian-inspired dreads throws into relief the pain and exclusion Clare feels as she observes Farkhanda spending more time with other young Muslim women. This is particularly interesting as the strengthening of Islamic identities is rarely dealt with in this fashion from a non-Muslim perspective. The problem with Miller’s rendering of the relationship is that it is not treated in enough depth to fully tease out the tensions, misunderstandings and hurt likely to arise.

Unfortunately it is this shallowness that is symptomatic of the book’s flaws as a whole. Miller brings into play a number of plotlines and themes that go nowhere or are just left to wither on the vine. Aunt Laetitia’s journal is the prime example. It may have been useful if this was used as a parallel to draw attention to Laetitia’s personal and political concerns, but it does not. All it manages to establish is that her wealthy conservative family once had a radical in their midst, nothing else. In addition the narrative pace is quite disjointed. The first two parts are set entirely in November 2002 and therefore sit uneasily with the way time accelerates in the final section. Miller accomplishes this by using short extracts from Laetitia’s own journal to take us through the two years, clumsily summarising plot and relationship outcomes. This is underlined by a sudden reversion to Clare’s voice at the close of the book. It reads as if Miller lost patience and wanted to finish as quickly as possible.

Aside from these literary considerations there are a number of points that would frustrate socialist readers of Demo. What particularly annoyed me was Miller’s adoption of lazy clichéd stereotypes: salt-of-the-earth proletarians (Clare and Danny) meet posh and wealthy anti-capitalists (Laetitia and Julian). Perhaps Miller set this up to give their relationships a class-clash bent but other than a few asides on accents and Danny’s ‘proliness’ it is more or less ignored. The novel would have benefited if it had explored the issues activists like Laetitia and Julian are likely to encounter as their politics break them from their bourgeois backgrounds.

There is also a real sense of not knowing where the novel is going. Anyone picking it up would assume it to be a story of young adulthood and radical politics. It is however far more of the former and very little of the latter. There is absolutely no sense of the characters being empowered by their experiences, and particularly so Clare. Her naiveté when it comes to sex and relationships is established early on but no real enthusiasm for the issues underlying the ESF and the anti-war demo are conveyed. Her character does not grow politically and you are left with the feeling she is going through the motions where her forays into activism is concerned. In fact I got the distinct impression the political background was merely a canvas onto which the characters are painted. The story could easily have been set in a Club 18-30 holiday and not lose anything of real substance.

In an interview she gave with Penguin’s website Miller describes a prolonged period of "helpless rage" she felt in the lead up to the Iraq war. Unfortunately this novel reflects much helplessness and very little rage. Socialists will have to seek literary inspiration elsewhere.


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