My 7th book on the Aspen Words Literary Prize 2021 Longlist and this is one that was neither on my radar at all prior to this list nor one that I read anything about before picking it up (or, to be fair, starting the audio…the narrator for which has a particularly grating voice, in my opinion, though it did end up fitting the overall vibe of the story pretty well). Anyways, the point is that I went into this one with no expectations or preconceptions, which is pretty rare for me these days.
A Children’s Bible is a sort of post-apocalyptic, parent/privilege judging, Bible parable. A very strange combination. It opens with a group of families going on vacation together, but, as it is told from the POV of the children (one in particular) it’s got a very harsh “adults are dumb” tone to it. Though, in this case, it’s hard to argue, since these adults seemed particularly detached from reality and the amount of attention they put into parenting appears to border on neglect. Anyways, a large hurricane hits and sends their location into an end of the world situation, with a children-adult split, illness, lawlessness, violence and all sorts of doomsday-prepping situations. And, as I said, it is all set against the backdrop of Bible allusions and the absolute opposition of realities of the “haves” and have-nots” of the world.
I need to just go ahead and say, right off here at the start, that this book just wasn’t for me. I am going to say a number of things I was impressed by or appreciated objectively, because I think that’s only fair. And I cannot honestly think of many things truly wrong with it, nothing struck me as particularly problematic, which is the only type of thing I give negative reviews for (at least, that’s my goal, in being critical and opinionated, but fair). So, this is still getting a neutral three stars from me. But I definitely was not a personal fan of this book. It just didn’t vibe with me.
First, there was so much Bible stuff up in here. And now maybe I should have guessed that, based on the title and cover design, but the number of references and sort-of parallels (both overt and more subtle), as well as the clear attempts to subvert the original and or make some sort of commentary about it, was all a bit much for me. And this is coming from (for full disclosure) a very not-at-all-religious person. I will say though, I did in some ways appreciate the interpretation of the Bible from a “non-indoctrinated” child’s perspective, as well as the clear lines drawn re: God and Jesus being essentially the same thing as, metaphors for perhaps, science and nature. It was an interesting and unique take.
The other major theme, that of the contempt children have for parents/adults was almost theatrical in how hard the author pushed it. I mean, Millet definitely captures the dismissal of age that youth have. And, since it’s written from the children’s perspectives, the actual level of parental disinvolvement is up for question, since I feel like they’re very unreliable narrators on that front, but the evidence does point towards these particular parents being pretty shitty guardians. The one thing about this blatant theme that I did feel was well done was the portrayal of the difference in what is important for youth versus for adults: the status placed on certain things (life, money, power, etc.) and the belief in systems along with the willingness (ability, even?) to adapt to new systems and situations. There is, truthfully, a resiliency and adaptability that children have that is really played up here, versus the “set in their ways” aspects of adulthood and adults’ (especially, in this case, privileged adults’) psychological incapacity to handle the end of everything that is familiar and knowable. It’s extreme, the way the children’s perspectives represent this adult separation from reality, almost to a satirical level (maybe?). But I see the points being made.
This whole novel felt weirdly surreal to read. The writing was gorgeous, creating a sort of sarcastic and detached melancholic vibe, which is not a set of adjectives that I ever imagined using together. It is original and has some fascinating commentary about the social structures of the world as we know it, the way an inability to act selflessly, to let go of arbitrary social constructs and resistance to change will bring about an eventual downfall. But the strange and violent (CW: death/killing, light torture, general violence, substance use/misuse) Bible retelling parable style was just not a feel that worked for me.
A few passages that struck me while I was reading:
“If you could be nothing, you could also be everything. Once my molecules had dispersed, I would be here forever. Free. Part of the timeless. The sky and the ocean would also be me. Molecules never die…”
“We knew the drill: leave no trace. Of course, there would always be traces. The trick was to hide them.”
“Dryness was a temporary state. Like safety.”
“What people wanted to be, but never could, traveled along beside them.”
“We figured it was healthy, for the parents especially, not to try to deny the fact of what had been lost but to acknowledge it.”
“’I think you solved it, Jack. In your notebook. Jesus was science. Knowing stuff. Right? And the Holy Ghost was all the things that people make. You remember? Your diagram said making stuff.’ ‘Yes. It did.’ ‘So maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine.’ ‘Art is the ghost.’ ‘The comets and the stars will be our eyes,’ I told him. And I went on. The clouds the moon. The dirt the rocks the water and the wind. We call that hope, you see.”