The Optimists
Andrew Miller
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The Optimists

Andrew Miller
Harvest Books
324 pages
April 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Clem is a photographer; his images are a reflection of his integrity and his critical view of the world, exposing indecencies and celebrating triumphs. But the recent horrors he witnessed in an African village are burned into his mind, indelible, so that even when he returns to London, he cannot erase these visions from his memory: "Too much sorrow makes a heart like a stone." He walks in shadows, unable to connect to anything or anyone, suspended in his discomfort without relief.

This latest genocidal massacre has deeply shocked him, strangling his perspective. Clem instinctively understands that he is in no condition to help anyone else, that "his heart had locked fast the night he had straddled the dead with his lenses." But when Clem's sister, Clara, has a recurrence of her "trouble", a condition that hasn't occurred for over twenty years, he feels that he must make an effort.

After a short visit to the sanatorium in Scotland, Clem flies impulsively to Canada and meets with a fellow journalist, Frank Sullivan, the older man who shared his experiences in Africa. Other than communicating a similar struggle over what they have witnessed, the visit fails to resolve Clem's inner turmoil.

Returning to Scotland, Clem removes his sister from the private facility, taking her to live in a familiar childhood place - the country home of their aunt, where there is a small cottage for them. The time spent with the depressed Clare offers a profound lesson in the love that ameliorates their mutual problems, Clem reaching out to another equally in pain, an act of extraordinary generosity.

The author views all with a practiced eye: the subtle details others might overlook, the outrage of genocide, the shock of returning to a city mired in the comfort of daily routine, the desperate urge to make right terrible wrongs. Profound in its simplicity and directness, this luminous novel focuses on Clem's attempt to help Clare achieve serenity while tortured by his ambivalence and sense of separateness, the outrage of injustice that fills him with disquiet.

The plot is brilliant, contrasting the senseless massacre with the somnolent Somerset countryside, where Clare's mind grapples with indefinable shadows, leaving her as shattered in her ordered life as Clem in his pursuit of equity in a world gone mad. At the core is Clem's moral dilemma. If the monster who directed the massacre is captured, what will the photographer do, how will he confront the loss of objectivity that has overtaken him since his return from Africa?

Wrenched from the sheltered days nurturing his sister to the real possibility of a contretemps with the engineer of death, Clem is confronted with the difficulties of a man undone by atrocity; healing is possible, if not forgiveness. In an astonishing denouement, the man with a compassionate if damaged heart confronts the brutal reality of evil, his actions defining a future with the faint promise of hope.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Luan Gaines, 2005

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