Book review: Life Without Children

James Walton 18 October 2021

A downbeat but brilliant novel set during the coronavirus outbreak is this month’s fiction pick

In his 1991 novel Talking It Over, Julian Barnes compares life to invading Russia. You start off full of beans, making happy progress—but then comes “a long morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face”.

This less-than-cheery notion also underlies the work of Roddy Doyle. His career began more than 30 years ago with the comic ebullience of novels such as The Commitments and The Van, both made into successful films. These days, though, his fiction has a distinctly melancholy tone, with his mostly male protagonists facing the onset of old age and a growing sense of redundancy as their children begin to leave home and their chances of changing their lives to any significant extent recede. 

His new short-story collection Life without Children (there’s a clue in the name) firmly follows the same pattern. Almost all the tales feature men in their early sixties—Doyle’s own age—who are forced to realise that they’re just not needed the way they were back when they occupied centre-stage in their kids’ lives.

But this time, there’s an added dimension to feeling cut off from the world they once knew, because most of the stories take place during Ireland’s coronavirus lockdown—which, as Doyle puts it about one particularly unhappy character, “has ripped away the padding. There’s no schedule, no job, no commute. There’s nothing saving him.”

The book displays Doyle’s remarkable talent for conveying the strongest of emotions in the simplest of words and the shortest of sentences (“He’s a nothing. An emptiness. He’s a place where a man used to be”). It bristles with quietly sharp insights into the shape of a human life. It’s also full of a touching sympathy for these blokes—and perhaps even more for the women who have to live with them. 

Granted, one or two of the characters manage, again touchingly, to achieve about the best they can hope for: a kind of weary acceptance of their new situation. Nonetheless, for all its brilliance, this is certainly not a book for readers who like their fiction to provide escapism.

Life Without Children by Roddy Doyle, is published by Cape.

Reader's Digest Recommended Read: The Amur River: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron 

According to Craig Brown, Colin Thubron “might justly claim to be the greatest travel writer in the world”: a claim that, if anything, is bolstered still further by the appearance of this extraordinary new book. 
A couple of years ago, aged 79, Thubron journeyed to what—even by his standards—is a remote part of the globe.

Now he brings its people, geography, wildlife, current problems and all-round historical importance thrillingly alive in a way that may make some readers (me, for starters) somewhat embarrassed that we’d never so much as heard of the Amur river. It is, after all, the world’s tenth longest, and for 1,000 miles forms the border between Russia and China.

Or at least it does these days—thanks to Russia’s huge expansion into Asia over the past few centuries (before that, the Russian frontier was 3,000 miles away). In recent years, though, the rise of China has left those on the Russian side increasingly alarmed about what might happen next.

Thubron travels the Amur’s length, from its beginnings as the Onon river in Mongolia, which he tackles on horseback. From there, a mix of road, rail and boat takes him the 3,000 miles to the Pacific, with wonderful stories at every turn. He also finds traces of the region’s many layers of history, from the last remnants of the indigenous shamanists to Buddhist monasteries with a single monk, via statues of Lenin. 

We join him here near the start, when the Amur is still the Onon, in whose valley Mongolia’s most famous son grew up and is said to be buried—although, despite much searching, his tomb has never been discovered… 

The nearest source for Genghis Khan’s life, The Secret History of the Mongols, says nothing of his grave. Its omission from this extraordinary document suggests a prohibition against disclosing it; but it is The Secret History that fills the Onon valley with Genghis’s youth and early conflicts.

The anonymous epic, written in a lost Mongolian original a few years after Genghis’s death, was discovered in the 19th century on the shelves of a Peking library. The work is redolent of oral tradition, where history merges with legend, and vivid detail with archaic epithet.

It was written, it seems, as an instructive history for the Mongol royal family, and follows their great progenitor’s ascent from youthful crimes—he murdered his own half-brother—to the fulfilment of his divine calling from the Eternal Sky.

A complex character, both politic and visionary, emerges alongside the tempest of shocking cruelty familiar to the West. It was on the Onon’s banks that the Mongols united under him, and it was in its valleys, in collective hunting and early battles, that the way was paved for an empire founded on horseback. 

The Secret History relegates the two decades of his later campaigns to a few cursory sentences, but by his death in 1227 his empire stretched from the Pacific to the Caspian, and his descendants extended it to form the largest contiguous empire ever known, conquering China in the east and harassing Vienna to the west.

By 1290 the whole breadth of Asia was bruised into one vast confederacy whose Pax Mongolica endured for another century, while commerce flourished and an exhausted peace reigned. A virgin with a dish of gold, it was said, could walk unmolested from China to Turkey. 

Perhaps Genghis Khan, leaving no material trace on the Onon watershed, permeates it the more powerfully in imagination. This evening, when we regain it, the river seems no longer an incident in the landscape, but its surging heart.

It is stronger now, fed by mountain tributaries, and deeper. Its surface glimmers in steely troughs and ridges that reach its banks gently, while eating them away.

Yet it is still small—a moving sliver in the darkness—and no theory quite dispels the wonder that it engendered this cataclysmic transformation of Asia, and that today’s Mongolia, with a population of barely three million, once poured out such a flood of concentrated power. 

Between 1237 and 1239 the Mongols’ Golden Horde overswept the mosaic of princedoms that constituted early Russia, and settled to impose fearsome levies on the surviving Slavic peoples.

For over two centuries Russia’s subjugation under the Mongols drastically realigned it, impairing its future convergence with western Europe.

The so-called ‘Tartar yoke’, some historians suggest, gave birth to Russia’s stoic fatalism, freezing it in serfdom and autocracy. Thus, by an outrageous sleight of mind, Ivan the Terrible, Stalin and Putin become the offspring of Genghis Khan, and the country’s perennial split between Western civilization and an ‘Asiatic’ destiny originated in the moonlit river beneath us.

The Amur River: Between Russia and China by Colin Thubron is published by Chatto & Windus at £20

Read more: Book review: Freckles

Read more: 10 Great books by African authors in 2021

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter