Universalist review Emancipation of B

Universalist rarely carries reviews of novels but we are justified in making an exception for this work. It is a first novel by an author well known in Quaker circles for her writings on life and spirituality and it is likely to appeal to our readers for several reasons. It can be read as a psychological study, a spiritual journey or just a story about a rather unusual man lacking in many of the qualities that others take for granted. The principal character is B, always known only by the initial of his name. We are told the story of his early life, his family and forays into the world of work. His innate withdrawn character makes for difficult relationships at home, school and elsewhere. He is a misfit and feels himself to be such, even more so after an accident leaves him physically disabled. He sees people as difficult but still retains a strong desire to define himself in his own terms.
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His need to seek solitude comes to dominate his life and we follow his efforts to live as an urban hermit. Life for misfits is not easy and one of book’s strengths is the description both of B’s tribulations and those of his only helper, a well-educated migrant whose appeal for asylum has been rejected and who is now living illegally on the margins. We feel for B as we follow the details of his daily life and musings. Most of us could not endure a life of total solitude and reflection. We are nevertheless fascinated by those who have chosen to follow that path. Something in the human psyche is attracted – and also repulsed – by the idea of leaving humdrum affairs for a different sort of fulfilment. We have many examples, short term such as Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, or rather longer such as the three years, three months and three days of a Tibetan retreat, and other instances of ascetics living for decades in a mountain cave. Most accounts have a religious background. Interestingly, B has no formal religion. He rejected his mother’s form of Christianity and, although he has been influenced by Buddhism and learnt to meditate, he has no formal allegiance there. His desire to be a hermit springs from an internal impulse which the author explores in an engaging and convincing way. As a good book should, it makes us reflect on the variations in human character. This is a carefully crafted story of a man who would be regarded in many circles as inadequate or even problematic. Certainly he does not score highly on social skills. But he comes vividly alive on the page as someone who suffers, who has no malice, and who engages our empathy even though at first sight he may seem unattractive. The publishers say of their books that once you pick them up you will not want to put them down. This is true! The reader identifies with B and his difficulties and is on tenterhooks to know what happens to him next. This is surely the sign of a tale successfully told. Thought-provoking and a good read!

Dorothy Buglass