Read for the #GreeneforGran reading tribute, only my third Graham Greene novel ever and my second read for #GreenforGran. I read Stamboul Train earlier this month, which I also enjoyed. This novel is one of Graham Greene’s thriller style novels rather than one of the more literary offerings. I am now quite keen to read some of those novels which are considered among his best. I have certainly found that I enjoy his style of writing.
The Ministry of Fear is a quick enthralling read –and although possibly not a masterly work, I was immediately hooked. It is a spy story although the plot isn’t too complex, in fact there were moments when I thought aspects of the plot were left a little too obscure. There is as deliciously sinister atmosphere to the novel which helps drive the action. Written and published during the Second World War, The Ministry of Fear is set during the London blitz of bombed out buildings and underground shelters. In fact I think it is in atmosphere that Greene is really quite brilliant, as the novel opens there is a fragile innocence about the central character Arthur Rowe, as he remembers the fetes of his childhood, an innocence that is soon replaced by a darker reality.
“Rowe was exhausted and frightened; he had made tracks half across London while the nightly raid got under way. It was an empty London with only occasional bursts of noise and activity. An umbrella shop was burning at the corner of Oxford Street; in Wardour Street he walked through a cloud of grit: a man with a grey dusty face leant against a wall and laughed and a warden said sharply, ‘That’s enough now. It’s nothing to laugh about.’ None of these things mattered. They were like something written; they didn’t belong to his own life and he paid them no attention. But he had to find a bed, and so somewhere south of the river he obeyed Hilfe’s advice and at last went underground’
Arthur Rowe is a middle aged man who we soon learn is haunted by his mercy killing of his beloved wife Alice years earlier. Arthur has served a short sentence at the hands of the judiciary in some kind of hospital, but Arthur seems unable to forgive himself. As the novel opens Arthur wanders into a small charity fete that he happens across in a London square, here he purchases a book he remembers from childhood, guesses the weight of the cake and goes to have his fortune told. When Arthur wins the cake “made with real eggs” no less – he is immediately aware of some rather odd behaviour among the few remaining people at the fete. From here on, Arthur is a hunted man. Back in his sad rented room, Arthur receives a visit from a stranger, a man who receives a piece of cake from Arthur and sits crumbling it in his fingers, while Arthur sips at the tea he has made aware of it having a rather odd flavour, a flavour he remembers from years before. The bomb that then falls, destroying both the house where Arthur lives and the cake, probably saves his life, but from now on Arthur Rowe is on the run. The action takes Arthur to a private inquiry agency, a peculiar séance, and a private asylum, resulting in a bout of amnesia and an unlikely romance.
“There are dreams which belong only partly in the unconscious; these are the dreams we remember on waking so vividly that we deliberately continue them, and so fall asleep again and wake and sleep and the dream goes on without interruption, with a thread of logic the pure dream doesn’t possess.”
Drawn into this strange and frightening world that Arthur has unwittingly found himself a part of are an Austrian brother and sister, a private detective and a psychiatric nurse at a private hospital. The mysterious organisation that is pursuing Arthur remains something of a mystery, even to the reader. Maybe the who – doesn’t entirely matter – the “they” are the baddies – and Arthur is the “goodie” There is an irony to this of course as Arthur is already a killer, we know he killed the woman he loved best in the world, and there exists the constant question of whether Arthur’s killing was a mercy to her or to himself. Neither Arthur nor the reader are entirely sure of who anyone is. Greene creates a wonderfully surreal dreamlike quality to some of Arthur’s encounters which suit this thriller of wartime secrets and dangerous affiliations. In the second part of the novel – of which I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers – things becomes wonderfully disorienting – this was really unexpected but serves as a means for Greene to explore memory, and how Rowe’s view of himself is determined by his memory (as is our own perhaps). Memory and the past is a constant motif in this novel – which while it may not be a major literary work, is rather more than just another wartime spy novel.
I found this to be a very readable and compelling novel, and I am sure that I will be reading more Graham Greene in the future. This lovely reading tribute, #GreeneforGran has served to raise the profile of this writer for me, reminding me of novels I had somewhere at the back of my mind meant to read one day.