by Melissa Benn
One of Us starts as a comfortable novel, the kind of read that takes you gently by the hand and leads you into the house with as much finesse as the narrator's mother achieves during her many domestic social gatherings. Lulled by the delicate descriptions of two families slowly entwining, it would at first be easy to dismiss this tale as an unchallenging coming of age story, the difficulties of life as the child of successful, loving parents not being remarkable in their ability to harrow or surprise. Yet, the novel is surprising and its progression towards the story it wishes to tell is achieved with enough subtlety that both the message and its bearers remain with the reader long after the book is closed.
Anna Adams narrates the story in flashback, baring her soul to an ambitious journalist whose contact with Anna is just close enough to warrant her trust yet distant enough for the repercussions not to trouble him unduly. Billed as an 'Antigone for the New Labour milieu', Anna's revenge on the government on behalf of her brother is perfectly judged for the masters of spin, their response as heavy handed and brutal as any dying regime's. Through Anna's eyes, we see the destruction of hope in her fragile brother, a loss that reflects the expectation and gradual disillusionment of the country as a whole in its shiny new government of 1997.
One of Us is an unflinching portrayal of family life; the varieties of suffering in the individual, the possibilities for misunderstanding in the relationships. Benn draws a parallel between a collapse of ideals in the drawing rooms of Islington and the war of ideas playing out on the world stage. Whether challenging the orthodoxy of a failing social welfare contract, defying the patriarchal establishment or martyring themselves in the name of peace, the central characters in One of Us leave the reader in no doubt that the personal is political. That we climb out of this cauldron of politics and philanthropy, somewhat startled by the strength of feelings the novel invokes, only shows how carefully Benn heats the water.