The kids are alright in this allegorical novel

A Children’s Bible by Lydia Millet

My Grandma gave me a copy of the Hamlyn Children’s Bible for my ninth birthday (right). I loved that book, and particularly enjoyed all the old testament stories and the now rather cheesy illustrations – indeed I still have it, in fair condition too. So, I can completely understand why young Jack in Lydia Millet’s latest novel enjoyed the children’s bible he was given to read on holiday. He tells his sister, Eve, who narrates this novel about it:

The first story, Jack told me, had a talking snake in it and a lady who really liked fruit. She had my name!
“I don’t like how the snake’s a bad guy in it, though. That’s mean. Did you know snakes smell with their tongues?”
“What’s the story about,” I asked.
“It’s like, if you have a nice garden to live in, then you should never leave it”

I’m getting ahead of myself though. A group of families get together for a summer-long college reunion, renting a huge house together near the coast. Once there, the parents instantly regress to a second childhood, spending their time in an alcoholic, druggy haze. The twelve kids are mostly teenagers, with just a few younger siblings including Jack. At first they revel in the freedom, but then they start to feel ignored but with the lack of being able to do much except with each other it’s becoming claustrophobic too. Only seventeen-year-old Alycia has made a break for freedom going into town to meet other local teens, and the parents never noticed she’d gone out. The kids take to sleeping wherever, the parents only care where their next drink is.

Then a big storm looms, and the parents make the first of many more bad decisions. They’ve outlaid so much to rent the house, they’ll stay rather than head off home. The storm batters everything, doing damage to the house and flooding the gardens, they’re increasing plagued by bugs etc.

On the second day it was discovered that the twins were missing. Their parents hadn’t noticed before, figuring they were with us. The mother’s bottom lip was so chewed up from the Ecstasy, it had swollen halfway down her chin.

They find one twin, and the children also rescue a homeless man, Burl, who, amazingly the parents are happy to let supervise the children driving back to safety while they stay to fix damage, and hope the other twin turns up. Several of the teens have their drivers permits, and so the exodus begins. Jack takes his now treasured bible. However, they find the roads are blocked – but Burl knows of a farm, a h(e)aven where they will be safe, and thus begins a new adventure as events take on a slightly surreal and apocalyptic edge…

In the beginning (sorry, my pun!), you can see how Millet is echoing the old testament in many different ways, be it in the unfolding events or her choice of words, ‘on the second day’ etc. It’s about more than the bible though, as the storm represents the effects of climate change too, the environment being a topic close to Millet’s heart – and the parents’ complacency towards it is pretty damning I’m sure you’ll agree. Indeed, these are some of the worst parents I’ve ever read!

Somewhere in the back of my mind is another book I’ve read where the children take over from the parents as the responsible ones, but I can’t place it at the moment. There are many novels where children are left adultless and have to fend for themselves in a grown-up way; Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now which I read ages ago comes close, but it’s not the one I was thinking of. There are, of course, plenty of embarrassing parents in novels, from the long-suffering Adrian Mole to the awful Wormwoods in Dahl’s Matilda, but these are comedies. Millet’s parents here just don’t care until it’s too late, there is no comedy in their hedonistic selfishness. There was an almost Ballardian feel to this novel too – the environmental disaster and the road trip element reminded me of J.G.’s The Drought in particular.

I really liked Millet’s narrator, Eve, who always looks out for her little brother, and Jack is a little darling. Maybe all the biblical parallels were too obvious, but I really didn’t mind that at all. This is the first book by Millet I’ve read – although I’ve had her Pure and Radiant Heart about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project on my shelves for ages. I really enjoyed A Children’s Bible, so am keen to read more by this author. (8.5/10)

Source: Review copy – thank you. Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible (W.W. Norton, 2020) hardback, 240 pages.

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8 thoughts on “The kids are alright in this allegorical novel

  1. Anokatony says:

    I have read four novels by Lydia Millett. I loved ‘Ghost Lights’ and hated ‘Magnificence’, so am quite up in the air about this author. At this point, I’m not up for reading any more of her novels.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I am not religious, but I know my bible stories – mostly from my own Children’s Bible – so I enjoyed spotting the parallels. The dual theme with the environment gave it an interesting focus though, and Eve the narrator was a great character. The ghastly parents do take your mind off things …   

  2. Laura says:

    I thought this novel was so interesting on childhood but I found the climate theme quite tired. I was also reminded strongly of How I Live Now!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It’s a classic children’s book. Looking at it as an adult to remind myself for this post, I had to chuckle about the censored bits like Sodom & Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19 and also that Revelations is reduced to two pages with big pictures!

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