Revolutionary roads

By Vanessa Spence

Eating Air, by Pauline Melville
(Telegram Books, ISBN 978-1-84659-076-4, 407 pp)

Pauline Melville’s second novel is an ambitious and sophisticated book that seeks to link the revolutionary urges of young Europeans in the 1960s and 70s with the Islamist terrorism of the early twenty-first century. Set principally in London (with side visits to Suriname, the United States, Italy, and the Netherlands), Eating Air follows a diverse group of young people into middle age. Melville’s characters remain the same over thirty years, and when they come together again in London, in roughly the present day, it is to try once more to strike a blow against capitalism. It appears that their fates are set, and unchanged by all that has happened since 1970.

Eating Air opens with the musings of the Surinamese narrator Victor Skynnard, an engaging man who is described as “a master builder of imaginary solutions.” Victor is a playwright who lacks inspiration and money, but has a couple of assets, namely a famous left-wing actress for a best friend, and a rich father-in-law. Via Victor, Melville quickly introduces us to her cast of characters, friends and lovers from the early 70s, and then she takes us back to the events that set the stage for their twenty-first-century catastrophe. At this point the reader may be almost looking forward to a literary thriller.

Ella de Vries is a British-Surinamese ballet dancer who loves Donny, a construction worker from “the north.” Almost by accident, the young lovers fall in with a group of middle-class would-be revolutionaries. While Ella and Donny grapple with the demands of the ballet company and making a living working on building sites, their associates focus on sparking a revolution.

Born in Guyana and long resident in London, Melville is the author of the novel The Ventriloquist’s Tale (1997) and the short fiction collections Shape-Shifter (1990) and The Migration of Ghosts (1998), which among them have won a slew of literary awards. She is brilliant at describing places and people, and evoking times and places, as in this passage in which a six-year-old Ella auditions for the Royal Academy of Dance:

That December it was so cold that the examiners kept their coats on in the hall. Their breath steamed out in wisps as they looked down at the marking papers and up again at the performing candidates. Behind the upright piano Mrs Patrick kept her woollen mittens on to play. Her permed hair was dyed black and she wore bright red lipstick with war-time bravado, although the war was long since over . . .

[Ella] wore a black swimming-costume and over it a short, home-made, ill-fitting tunic with a slit down each side. Her scuffed ballet shoes had turned from pink to grey. The pale face and intense eyes gave an impression of mischievous remoteness as if she belonged elsewhere or was entirely focused on her own inner life. She barely looked at the examiners but concentrated on executing the steps, which she did reasonably well.

When one of the examiners asked her what she would like to do next, she thought for a few moments and then replied:

“Walk on my hands.”

But in Eating Air the characters become more and more like cardboard cutouts as the book progresses. They deliver speeches that serve only to remind us of their roles in the book. The members of the British Special Branch and the intelligence services are cynical and all-powerful, and bound to outsmart everyone who wants to upset the status quo (there are no earnest, bumbling George Smiley types here). The Jewish businessman — surprise, surprise — is going to be responsible for defrauding his Syrian-Palestinian counterpart. The violent, dedicated-to-his-personal-freedom, working-class Donny is to remain faithful to his “values” and one true love over a thirty-year period, unlike his hypocritical middle class contemporaries. The woman from America has no ideals, and is dedicated only to maintaining her personal myth and to increasing her personal wealth.

It is this insistence on making points that slows down Eating Air, and as the book nears its end, the pace is further slowed by a series of set pieces, the point of which are unclear until we read in the novelist’s postscript acknowledgments that the book is a loose reworking of themes from Euripides’ play The Bacchae (in which the arrogant King Pentheus is torn to pieces by a pack of Maenads). It appears that Melville was determined to give Dionysus his due, hence the long passages designed to tie her tale back to the Ancient Greek play.

Eating Air left me wanting more. The humour promised by the early descriptions of the narrator and Victor Skynnard vanishes quickly as the other players are introduced. The young people in the novel represent not the future, but death — the whole world begins and ends with our middle-aged protagonists. The novel seems to want to ask big questions about capitalism and violence, but, as the various characters tell us, there is probably no point to anything at all. We are just puppets acting out our fates. Basta. Finito. This lack of character development can make the novel’s twists and turns and its numerous ironies seem tiresome rather than amusing or revelatory. Perhaps Melville wants to remind us that there is nothing new under the sun, or that there is no such thing as progress. If that’s her aim, then she succeeds.

Readers versed in literary history and theory will probably enjoy the novel much more than the general reader, as they follow Melville’s characters through time, but in the end her justly lauded descriptive powers don’t make up for the overworked plot. Where Eating Air does satisfy is in its evocation of time and place. I would strongly recommend the novel to the reader who wants to understand Britain in the early twenty-first century, or who’s interested in the uprisings of the 1960s. In Eating Air, Melville does tell us a lot about our time. She just doesn’t tell us much about ourselves.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Vanessa Spence was born in 1961 in Jamaica. She grew up there and was educated at Oxford and Yale. Her first novel, The Roads Are Down, was published in 1993.