The Emperor's Children
By Claire Messud
PICADOR pounds 16.99 (431 pp) pounds 15.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897
Claire Messud's gracefully written new novel, the length of its sentences and the cadences of its prose reminiscent of Henry James, focuses on the moral dilemmas of a group of affluent young New York professionals, and the shocks delivered to their complacent self- belief by acts of personal and political violence. Although the novel is (crucially) set in New York City, its streets hardly feature: we see the characters inside their apartments, chatting over dinner in fashionable restaurants, having sex in nightclub washrooms.
Early on, Danielle, an ambitious television producer, has lunch with Ludovic, a journalist planning to devastate the world of cultural commentary with his dazzling, radical new magazine The Monitor. She glances out of the restaurant window "at the pedestrians passing on the other side of the glass, a million miles away, at a homeless man, dread-headed, tattered, teetering... shaking his scaly outstretched hand at the crowds". To preserve their sense of superiority, Danielle, her best friend Marina, and Julius, a writer of book reviews, keep the outside world at bay, and keep their distance not just from suffering humanity in general but from the Other in particular.
Their point of view, narrated sometimes via the Flaubertian, over- the-shoulder method and sometimes more omnisciently, is cold and judging. They perceive foreigners, especially the poor, as caricatures: "a fat-shouldered Serb with a flamboyant mustache and a mournful physiognomy, who seemed to have been squeezed into a uniform two sizes too small... a small Spanish woman, with a tight chignon and a peculiar wen by her right ear. …