I’ve just finished Dream of Scipio, which I really enjoyed. The characters can at points feel a little flat, but it’s a beautiful novel, and it’s the kind of piece that stays with you.
The story’s told in three strands; one in Roman Gaul, another in medieval Avignon, another in the south of France during World War II. In each instance Pears creates a character facing a difficult moral choice, choosing in essence between compromise and principle. The characters are carefully structured, and at times they way they reflect each other can feel overly artificial, as though you’re standing between two mirrors rather than reading a novel. But as the novel goes further, and having drawn out the parallels, the stories diverge, which is a relief.
At points the characters do feel a little flat; I didn’t find them as emotionally engaging as Pears’ other piece I’ve read (An Instance of the Fingerpost). Perhaps that’s a result of the different format. In some ways they feel as though they’re created purely as props for the dilemmas Pears introduces; and when the characters feel most alive is when they’re thinking, rather than responding emotionally. But the rest of the story is strong enough that it’s not too much of an issue, and the story still draws you in.
The thing I found most interesting about the book is the questions it raises about moral choice. They’re never quite definite questions, as simple as the kind of thing you find in a moral philosophy textbook. But each of his three (male) protagonists grapples with a difficult situation, and responds to it in a different way. That part I found the most interesting, and is what I suspect I’ll still be thinking about for days from now. Whether to compromise principle for the sake of a half-way, or to stay the course, is a difficult one, particularly when outcomes are uncertain, and especially when the choices involve multiple poor options, and success seems to require breaking rules you’ve always held to.
It’s a difficult set of questions – one I certainly don’t have an answer to. But Pears draws it out well – it’s worth a read.