Review of 'Demo', Alison Miller, Hamish Hamilton £12.99
With the title Demo, this looked like the sort of novel Socialist Review readers would enjoy. That the central character, Clare, is involved in the anti-war movement at the age of 16 in 2002 - just as I was - made me all the more excited about reading it.
When school students marched out of their schools and took to the streets in their thousands, when they blocked roads and climbed the gates of Downing Street, they shattered all the stereotypes about apathetic youth, and brought a vital, idealistic and young voice to the movement. That a novel has been written to celebrate this spirit is, I think, a testimony to what we achieved then and what we can achieve again now.
Full of pace, the novel darts from the first time a truly mass movement seemed possible when a million marched in Florence in 2002, back to an upper class home in London and a working class home in Glasgow. The narration is taken in turn by the female characters, both with their own distinctive voice, including one in Glaswegian dialect. Author Alison Miller's keen ear for language and dialogue remains an engaging and delightful aspect of her writing throughout. When she writes about the anti-war movement, whether the mass demonstrations with all their colour and sounds and costumes and home-made banners, or the crushing feeling when the bombs fell on Baghdad and Bush got re-elected, or the almost unbearable excitement of going to demonstrate abroad, Miller captures the atmosphere perfectly.
The problem is that the anti-war movement increasingly becomes the backdrop to what Miller wants to focus on, which is the relationships between a group of friends. Their relationships are evoked just as truthfully as the anti-war movement is, but exist entirely separate from it. The most powerful element of young people's involvement in the movement, to me, was not only the way in which they affected the look and the sounds of the movement but the way the movement affected them. The most unexpected leaders were suddenly at the forefront - Muslim students, secondary school children and young women. Ideas changed rapidly - at once anything seemed possible: a demonstration, a strike, a blockade...
For all the sexual adventures of the characters (and there are more of them than demonstrations in the novel - would another title have been better considering there are only two demonstrations?) the book seems rather tame. The young people rarely think beyond their own immediate surroundings, and they do not think about the world in a political way.
From the first to the last page there was no development of character. Perhaps most disappointingly, of the two female characters, one appears mostly as a victim who calms down only after discovering the joys of motherhood, and the other, Clare, never challenges the partner of the pregnant woman who uses her for sex throughout the novel. Such people would, I think, be unrecognisable to the young women who immersed themselves in the movement.
Nostalgia is perhaps an inflated term for events that happened only three years ago, but if that is what readers are looking for, Demo is a very pleasant read. But nostalgia is not enough to convey the effect of the dynamic and vital movement that has already changed so many people's ideas and preconceptions. I was left with the feeling that the set very much upstaged the characters.