It was Melissa Benn’s article in the Guardian that put me on to EL Doctorow’s The book of Daniel and I’m so glad it did. I thought this was a terrific book. It’s a fictionalisation of the story of the Rosenbergs, the communists executed in America in the 1950s for passing atomic secrets to the Russians, who here become Paul and Rochelle Isaacson. It’s told from the point of view of their son Daniel in 1967, who is dabbling in hippie activism while looking back at the activism of his parents.
I thought this was so clever because the tone is so subtle, while the novel as a whole is bleak and angry. Daniel mocks his parents and ironises their politics, but he doesn’t despise them, nor is he cynical. And although Daniel is sadistic and fucked-up, he’s still terribly sad and basically sympathetic: he treats his wife and child badly, but we feel for him. And his view of events is so beautifully captured: the narrative drifts between contemporary events as he is writing and the events of his childhood: his parents’ arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution are given as random chunks of memory. He sometimes refers to his father, or our father, sometimes to Mr Isaacson; the passages in 1967 switch between first and third person, but even in third person there’s a sense of Daniel as narrator, as though he’s trying to make sense of his life by writing about it.
The book has a terrible sense of tension and unease and dread (electricity is used as a metaphor all the way through), and I wondered how Doctorow would sustain this in dealing with the execution of the Isaacsons. There is no coy ‘and when it was done’: it is brutally clear and horribly dispassionate. It’s a fantastic, intense, sad book, one of the best I’ve read this year. I have Doctorow’s Ragtime waiting: looking forward to it.