Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 305
The novel presents the inter-related stories of three families in London during the waning years of the 20th century. The imminent specter of Y2K, as people wondered if the world’s computers would collectively fail at the moment the new millennium began, provides a specific temporal context. For two families, the...
(The entire section contains 1519 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The novel presents the inter-related stories of three families in London during the waning years of the 20th century. The imminent specter of Y2K, as people wondered if the world’s computers would collectively fail at the moment the new millennium began, provides a specific temporal context. For two families, the fathers—Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal—are long-time friends, and many of the interactions occur between them, their wives, and their children. In addition, through the children’s connections, the third family, the Chalfens, become entangled in the others’ lives.
Much of the novel is concerned with Archie and Samal, who had become friends through military service together during World War II, as they move into middle age and remarry. Archie, who is a white English man, recovers from a bungled suicide attempt to meet and marry a Jamaican woman, Clara. Samad, originally from Bangladesh (when still part of British-controlled India), is married to Alsana, also from Bangladesh but much younger.
As the stories unfold, the emphasis switches to their children. Archie’s daughter Irie loves Samad’s son Millat, who is struggling to understand his Muslim heritage. When the two get in hot water together, their classmate Josh Chalfen steps up to tutor them; Josh is actually more motivated by his crush on Irie. This scenario also provides the entry into the work of Marcus, Josh’s father, which is concerned with the computer technology that should enable humankind to survive Y2K.
As the relationship between Irie and Josh develops, she also becomes more invested in her Jamaican heritage on her mother’s side, and she and Josh go to Jamaica. Prior to this, however, Irie had consummated her love for Millat but also slept with his twin brother, Magic, so the father of her daughter might have been either man.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1214
Archibald “Archie” Jones is trying to commit suicide. He is inhaling carbon monoxide from the exhaust fumes of his running car, which is parked in Willesden Green, a multiracial, multicultural, and mostly immigrant neighborhood of London. Suicide has been Archie’s New Year’s resolution since the miserable failure of his childless marriage to an insane Italian woman. As with most decisions in his life, he had tossed a coin to determine whether or not he should kill himself. A local butcher saves Archie’s life when he sees him in his car, which is parked in the shop’s loading area. Archie readily treats this as a good sign that his life has not yet given up on him.
Reinvigorated by his second chance, Archie, a forty-seven-year-old World War II veteran, attends a random New Year’s Day party, or rather, whatever is left of the celebration from the night before. At the party he encounters Clara Bowden, a nineteen-year-old Caribbean and a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness. Archie and Clara marry just six weeks later.
Born to a highly religious Jamaican mother, Clara immediately sees her marriage to a native-born Englishman as an escape from the old, convoluted ways of her family. Her mother, Hortense Bowden, was born during a 1907 earthquake in her native Kingston, Jamaica. Hortense’s mother, Ambrosia, was fourteen years old at the time of Hortense’s birth. Ambrosia had become pregnant by a white English captain stationed in Jamaica. Because of the earthquake, Hortense had considered her own birth a miracle, and for the rest of her life she would be a religious zealot. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Hortense excitingly continues to anticipate the end of the world because she is firmly convinced that she must be one of the chosen people.
Samad Iqbal, Archie’s best friend for nearly thirty years, had encouraged Archie’s second marriage to a younger woman, such as Clara. Samad is married, by arrangement, to Alsana Begum, a woman nineteen years younger. Samad and Archie had met long before the Iqbals’ immigration from Bangladesh. Having served together at the end of World War II, the two men feel united in that experience, despite neither having done any fighting. They continue to retell their memories of the war at their regular spot, O’Connell’s Diner, where they go for drinks, omelets, and discussion.
Clara and Alsana become pregnant nearly at the same time and become close, albeit somewhat slowly and, for Alsana, reluctantly. Clara gives birth to Irie, while the Iqbals welcome twin boys: Magid, the older son by two minutes, and Millat. The three children grow up together and, as the first British-born children of immigrants, go through a process of cultural assimilation much different from that of their parents.
Samad gets obsessively involved with his children’s education, attending all parent meetings at their school and promoting all Muslim holidays for the sake of multiculturalism. An affair with his sons’ music teacher leads Samad to question English values and his own religion. For his sons’ salvation and his own redemption, he decides that the children are better off growing up in his native Bangladesh. However, on his waiter’s salary, he can only afford one airline ticket. After a torturous decision-making process, Samad settles on Magid, the more obedient and seemingly more old-fashioned of the twins. So, unbeknownst to his wife and with assistance from Archie, Samad sends away his older son to the house of Magid’s grandparents. Such betrayal is impossible for Alsana to forgive, and she begins to treat Samad with indifference and resignation. Nothing but the return of her firstborn can fix the family’s rift, not even Magid’s letter about his accomplishments in Bangladesh. Despite his father’s original aspirations, however, Magid becomes more interested in science than in religion.
Millat and Irie continue to grow up on English soil. By this point, Irie, an overweight girl of low confidence and with a head full of unruly hair, has developed an enormous crush on the younger son of the Iqbals. After they get caught smoking marijuana on campus, both children join a study group at the home of Joshua Chalfen, an older schoolmate, to avoid further consequences. Joshua’s parents—Marcus, a scientist, and Joyce, a horticulturalist—quickly become the children’s adopted parents.
The Chalfens are middle class, established, blissfully content, and egotistical. They often speak of themselves in the third person. Irie begins assisting Marcus with his experiments on the genetically manufactured FutureMouse, experiments that become controversial. Joyce, however, dotes on Millat. She supports him financially and defends him sometimes at the expense of her own family’s interest. To the children, the Chalfens’ middle-class ways are exciting at first, but soon, as in any child-parent relationship, a generational gap arises. Along with the Chalfens’ own son, Joshua, the children reject the adults’ input, mostly on topics relating to the childrens’ future.
In the meantime, a correspondence begins between Marcus and Magid, and it is only through Marcus’s investment in a return ticket that the older son of the Iqbals is able to fly back to England. Magid, despite his father’s original aspirations for him, returns to England as a more Westernized citizen and immediately becomes an assistant to Marcus. With FutureMouse-related publicity, Marcus is in need of such a companion, while Irie gets shoved off into a role of a filing girl. It seems that she can never escape the Iqbal twins. In a moment of frustration with her unrequited love, she makes love to both of the twins in a single night, first to Millat then to Magid.
In search of a sense of belonging, Millat goes through his own transformation and joins a Muslim fundamentalist group, KEVIN (Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation). Group members burn writer Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and intimidate those whose ways they detest. With his genetic meddling, Marcus becomes an obvious target of KEVIN’s retaliation. Chalfen’s own son Joshua also has joined a cause: the environmental group FATE. The organization utilizes Joshua as an insider to his father’s experiments and plans a violent protest against his work.
It is the last day of the millennium, and Marcus is presenting his FutureMouse to the public and to potential sponsors. The event brings together all of the members of the three families: the Joneses, the Iqbals, and the Chalfens. Clara and Archie are there, but are somewhat disinterested; Irie, who is now secretly pregnant with a child of one of Iqbal twins, is there, too. She will never know the real father of the soon-to-be-born child. Hortense makes her appearance as part of the Jehovah’s Witness’s next anticipation of the end of the world. It is the end of the millennium, after all, and what other venue can be more perfect? While Millat is at Marcus’s side, Magid is at the presentation as part of a religious protest by KEVIN. Joshua attends along with his FATE group in the name of defending animal rights.
Both Samad and Archie have a surprise encounter with a former prisoner of war, a French fascist doctor, who has become a mentor to Marcus. FutureMouse, which represents the future, escapes.