In the middle of the 1970’s, Oliver Gold found himself in an enviable position. He possessed a first-class university degree. He became a successful barrister, but when he wanted to return to academic life, his old college gave him a fellowship. Soon he turned philosopher. Although he was not a bloodless and analytic positivist, he maintained that moral laws were only useful assumptions made at a particular time in history. After he wrote a book that made him famous and fashionable, he was often asked to take part in intellectual discussions on the radio.
Then, in a radio discussion of child abuse, Oliver delivered a surprise. Consistent with his general views, he argued that a sexual taboo operated only when society generally agreed that a specific behavior was taboo. The Victorians had their prohibitions, long gone now. Only a few years ago, homosexuality was unlawful, but not anymore. In fact, the only taboo now left concerned the sexual feelings of children. Yet why should paedophilia be judged to be wicked? It was not so in many other cultures. How can one argue that children do not have free will in this matter? That children do not have sexual feelings? His career in broadcasting was finished. (Wilson may here draw on Margaret Drabble’s 1989 novel A Natural Curiosity, in which a character expresses almost identical opinions on a television talk show.)
Before readers come upon these arguments in chapter 5, they may have suspected that something odd was afoot. Earlier Wilson novels have dealt with sexual taboos; brothers, sisters, and cousins commit incest inThe Sweets of Pimlico (1977) and A Bottle in the Smoke (1990). Dream Children opens with a prelude detailing an episode, purportedly being broadcast in the 1990’s, of the American television real-life programCourt TV. The episode shows a middle-aged woman charging, on the basis of her recently recovered repressed memory, that she had been molested as a child.
The main action of Dream Children is set in the mid- 1980’s. Oliver is living in a large house in the Muswell Hill district of North London, a house owned by Janet Rose, an aging widow of a marginal literary personality. Janet is not intelligent, but she is smart enough to know her only chance of getting respect is by retelling and even inventing stories about the literary parties she and her husband gave in the 1950’s.
In Janet’s house, 12 Wagner Rise, live several women. There is her disturbed divorced daughter, Michal, a social worker who spends her time with equally disturbed young people. There is Michal’s own neglected daughter, whose real name is Roberta O’Hara but who is called “Bobs.” There is Catherine Cuffe, a university lecturer in philosophy who is Michal’s lesbian lover. There is Lotte, an ominous and buxom Austrian woman who had come as a nanny and remains as a housekeeper. There is also an assortment of animals that Bobs keeps and loves: a rabbit, a cock, a budgerigar, and a rat. At the emotional center of the household is Oliver, who had been introduced into the house by his former pupil Catherine some time after the child-abuse broadcast. His presence mysteriously seems to have calmed the emotional tensions of the volatile group. They love him. He is particularly valuable because he gives Bobs the parental care her mother is too busy to provide.
Oliver, though, is about to alter the chemistry of 12 Wagner Rise by marrying. To make matters worse, the woman he is to marry, Camilla, is an American. She seems to be rich and will probably want to lure him all the way to the United States. Each of the adult woman is distraught; only Bobs seems cheerful.
To this mix, chapter 5 adds not only the arguments about pedophilia but also strong evidence Oliver, a man now in his fifties, and Bobs, now about twelve, have been lovers for a long time. At this point, some readers may want to close their books.
They will be missing a remarkable story of the varieties of love and isolation told in a manner that is anything but prurient. Wilson masterfully distributes his sympathies among his finely realized characters. When Janet embroiders her memories, she inspires pity; her one moment of boozy confidence ends in humiliation. Catherine’s sensual yearning for Michal is made graphic, as is her intense intellectual but sexless love for Oliver, her tutor and master. Camilla, a small, mousy woman and an improbable bride, is taciturn and unfathomable for much of the novel, but in the end she reveals her misery and her fierce tenacity. Her mother, Rosalie, is the only sane...
(The entire section is 1878 words.)