Thy Will Be Done

P.D. James has attracted notice for how well she is able, within the confines of her mystery novels, to write about contemporary British society. Reviewing Devices and Desires in the New York Review of Books some time ago, Hilary Mantel made the suggestion that it was perhaps time for James to "slide out of her handcuffs, kick off her concrete boots, and stride onto the territory of the mainstream novel." James had been getting this advice for some time, not least, one suspects, from herself. One might have thought that James would write her first serious novel by carrying on in the same vein as her earlier mysteries, minus the bodies in the billiard room. Instead, the result of her first attempt is The Children of Men, for which James chooses as her scenario nothing less than the end of the human race. It is, however, the end of the race as only a writer long practiced at finding innovative ways of knocking people off could depict it.

The year is 2021, and Britain, like the world, is ending with a whimper rather than a bang, for in 1995 the last children were born to a humanity whose males have inexplicably become sterile. In the opening chapters, Theodore Faron, Oxford don and historian of the Victorian age, introduces us to this world by reminiscing in his journal, briefly summing up the intervening years. The 1990's were years of tribal warfare, Volkerwanderung, religious upheaval, lawlessness, and hedonism;...

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