Lynne Reid Banks Marigold Johnson - Essay

Marigold Johnson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As anyone knows who has followed Lynne Reid Banks further than The L-Shaped Room, her passionate involvement with Israel became and remains a constant literary theme—indeed, Defy the Wilderness is a fictional by-product of historical research into the first Arab-Israeli war. If it sounds disparaging to call a powerful and professional novel a "by-product", the author can be blamed, for telling us about its conception, and still more for clarifying in the first few pages precisely how we are to regard her heroine Ann—as a non-Jewish writer from England (with lots of thick long hair and a loose Indian dress, as in the jacket photograph), revisiting Jerusalem after fourteen years to research a book "showing all sides" of that early war….

When Miss Reid Banks lets go on the rhetoric of Israel and its history, she is both eloquent and informative (though some might say propagandist). She packs into the story of Ann's turbulent three days not only the great debate on Zionism but also the scenes and smells and sounds of Jerusalem…. It does not too much matter that, the inevitable, tragic terrorist attack seems a contrivance, and its victims predictably marked, nor that Ann uses her sexual involvement to press home the cause in which she must believe—although many feminists may raise an eyebrow at such pillow talk.

But even as one listens to the authentic voices and arguments, with the kind of sympathy it is necessary to extend to any novelist fiercely involved with a political cause, a small doubting voice asks whether novels like this have anything to do with fiction at its best. It is not enough to put names and faces on the interlocutors, or make the points in the debate; the reader must believe in the person as well as the cause. Which is why, despite the always lively and serious response which this novel invites, it is easier to read the history straight and to recall not the main characters or their arguments, but the odd scene or moment in the action when Lynne Reid Banks briefly allows her imagination to take over.

Marigold Johnson, "Pillow Talk and Politics," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4096, October 2, 1981, p. 118.