Andrew Miller

"The Optimists"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUL 15, 2005)

"He had to stay connected; to pretend, if only to himself, that he was a man of good habits, confessable ambitions, moderate appetites…Dress, shave, exercise. Observe the common courtesies. Do not spit on the pavement or put your feet on the seats or get drunk in the morning. Do not clutch the arm of a stranger and ask him to pray with you. Do not tell what you know. Do not show your fear."

Having returned from central Africa after witnessing and photographing a massacre in which three thousand innocent women and children were hacked to death at a church, forty-year-old photographer Clem Glass now finds himself unable to function in the "normal" world of London. The memory of Odette Semugeshi, a wounded child he photographed, will not leave him, nor will the horror of the other dead and maimed. Odette saw her parents, brothers, and sisters murdered, and as she lay beneath a pile of bloody bodies, she thought she herself was really dead. Perhaps she is. At a Red Cross hospital, Odette refuses to cry. "Too much sorrow makes the heart like a stone," the doctor says, to which Silverman, an older journalist who accompanied Clem on the trip, responds, "It's how the heart survives."

With his own heart deadened, Clem now finds himself without desire, a man dividing his life into the "time before" and the "time after" the horrifying event, a man killing time at movies he has no interest in seeing, unable to work or think about the future. His early belief that photography is "an honest and straightforward way of engaging in [reality]" has proven to be too true. His photographs of the massacre in N­­­­_____ are too honest and too realistic for his heart to bear, and he dreams of revenge on Ruzindana, the "monster" responsible for the atrocities.

When Clem's older sister Clare, an art historian, suffers a breakdown and is hospitalized, Clem, with no assignments or job to occupy his time, offers to become her "primary carer." Taking her to his aunt's guest cottage in the small village of Colcombe, he fixes up the cottage and borrows furnishings to make it habitable, and, for her sake, imposes some sort of order on their lives. As he cares for Clare and helps her to become less fearful, he also begins to confront his own fears and face his own problems.

Flying to Toronto to meet with Silverman, the journalist with whom he shared the African nightmare, he discovers that Silverman, too, is suffering, and when he later returns home with sixteen pages of a document that Silverman has written but never finished, the scene is set for his pursuit in Brussels of "the Bourgmestre," Sylvestre Ruzindana, whom he hopes to bring to trial.

Miller is an exceptionally clear writer, with the ability to create unusual characters facing unusual, but understandable, problems. Clem's inability to cope with the magnitude of the slaughter parallels the similar inability of the comfortable reader and the western world in general to do so. Wisely, Miller never describes much of the massacre and provides only a few details of the aftermath, leaving it up to the reader to imagine the kinds of horrors which would drive a professional photographer and journalist to such despair. By concentrating additionally on the personal terrors of Clare's much smaller but no less frightening world, he puts psychological trauma into a perspective that the reader can understand and empathize with.

His characters are realistic, not idealized, and they face their lives in ways that feel "normal" for the reader. Miller always scales the action to the everyday lives of his characters, rather than on the grand scale of a world stage, and when Clem eventually goes to Brussels to try to find Ruzindana, he finds himself searching for a real person whose perspective on his "crimes," while quite different from Clem's, is no less real or "human."

The use of symbols enhances the themes—the faint outline of leaves in paving stone "thread-delicate prints…half hidden, like drawings under tissue paper," is a reminder of the miracle of life superimposed on stone. A swim becomes a sort of baptism and rebirth. The trying on of a pair of glasses suggests the seeing of life from someone else's perspective. All these details are gracefully integrated, adding to the story and broadening its scope without being pretentious. In a surprising ending (and like the proverbial snake biting its tail), Clem harkens back to an early event, revisits it, and ultimately learns something new.

Satisfying on every level, The Optimists is a careful and well-developed study of trauma and its effects on people the reader comes to care about, with every detail adding to the psychological tension and to the development of theme. Literary fiction of the highest order, it shows the continued growth of author Andrew Miller, whose ability to create unusual but understandable characters in unusual but understandable circumstances is of the highest order.

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About the Author:

Andrew MillerAndrew Miller was born in 1960 in Bristol, England. He spent his early childhood in a Somerset village where his father was the local doctor. His parents separated when he was four and he went to live with his mother in Bath. After leaving school, he worked in Social Services for three years before studying literature, philosophy and history at Middlesex Polytechnic. He did an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia and went on to teach English in Spain and Japan. He studied Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 1991 and finished a Ph.D. in Critical and Creative Writing at Lancaster University in 1995.

His first novel, Ingenious Pain, was published in 1997. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction), the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Italian Grinzane Cavour Prize. His third novel, Oxygen (2001) was shortlisted for both the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Whitbread Novel Award.

Andrew Miller lives in Brighton, England. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014