It feels as though every other British novel these days begins with someone leaving Britain. All That Man Is by David Szalay commences when two young interrailers pull into Berlin Hauptbahnhof; Rachel Cusk’s Outline opens with a flight to Greece; Ali Smith’s Autumn features its protagonist, Elisabeth, painfully attempting to renew her passport, a totem of identity that has the dual function of allowing her to flee a bitter and conflicted homeland before it collapses into full-blown civil war.
Let Go My Hand, the fourth novel by the journalist and critic Edward Docx, begins at Dover ferry port as a father and son, Laurence and Louis, set off in the direction of Switzerland (like the UK, you might say), where Laurence has an appointment at Dignitas and intends to end his life (like the UK, you might say). But rather than a choice between liberal Europhilia and a “weatherproof expression of hurt righteousness” (to quote A A Gill), it is history that separates these two men.
Before being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, Laurence was an accomplished literary scholar, a self-reliant northern lad who could quote Milton or Shakespeare just as soon as fix a bust camper van roof. He is “the last of the war babies”, representing an “old-school idea of masculinity” and the demise of the postwar consensus. In sum, he is Melvyn Bragg. What follows is a son whose intellectual aspirations are stunted by “the lack of ideas, the energy costs, the bad economics” of the present age, not to mention the “acute mental eczema” that renders Louis unable to concentrate “for more than twenty seconds” at a time.
As the pair travel overland, the novel asks what it is that can keep a family together, despite the bubbling “dark matter” of long-held grudges and resentments born of “all that living together”. En route, they are surprised by Ralph and Jack, Laurence’s children from an earlier marriage, two temperamentally opposed, middle-aged men who refuse to see themselves as anything other than children, irreparably damaged by their father’s infidelity and abandonment of their mother.
They are basically overgrown babies – unlike their baby brother, Louis, whose rapport with his father is almost too good to be believable. Ralph, the elder one, is a womanising puppeteer based in Berlin and Jack, the younger, is a north London family man who aims to block his father’s dying wish: to die peacefully. As they re-enact the camping trips of summers long past on the road to Zurich, the quartet’s bickering assumes the quality of a big, discursive Russian novel – Fathers and Sons, Oblomov, The Brothers Karamazov – reeling through religion, romance, happiness and history.
“What is happiness?” one character asks at the end of the novel’s third section. “Is it contentment, ease, dependability? Or is it elation, excitement, exultation? Or does it turn out that the consolation prize for never having the elation is contentment? And the consolation prize for never having experienced any contentment is elation?”
There’s a great deal of this sort of stuff: brain pickings from physics, philosophy, psychology, literature. Sadly, it often reads as though a greater sense of atmosphere, mood and setting has been sacrificed to snappy dialogue and digestible ideas, which is a shame, because Docx is certainly capable of painting things afresh. Try the “muted propriety, furtive greed, napkins and frippery” of a French guest-house breakfast, or the “viscid glistening blackness” of a Swiss Schwimmbad at night.
“We are a talking family,” Louis asserts at the start of the novel, though it takes the patriarch’s impending death to provoke Ralph and Jack into saying what they feel. “Horse, pigeon or sail” were the primary means of communication from ancient Mesopotamia to 1820s England, Laurence reminds us. “And then – around 1989 – [things] really started to speed up.” But it still appears that honesty, openness and even just talking for the sake of talking could be the best solution for a family, much like a nation, in which the generations feel further removed from each other than ever before.
“What I want,” Laurence tells his boys, “is that we stay like this together and we carry on talking about whatever we’re talking about.” The narrative reaches an obvious climax when the gang visits a series of Palaeolithic caves. “This journey has its sacrament now,” Louis says, in case we hadn’t noticed. But it is in talking that his father finds solace – “silly, serious – it doesn’t matter” – and it’s in the creation of a squabbling, breathing family unit that this novel succeeds most.
Let Go My Hand
Picador, 432pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special