First published in 2019.
After adoring Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and very much enjoying her latest novel, The Burning Girl, which I read in Florida last year, I was keen to pick up another of her books. I chose a gorgeous Picador Classics edition of The Emperor’s Children, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The novel is set in New York in 2001, when ‘the whole world shifts’. In it, Messud explores ‘how utterly we are defined by the times in which we live.’
The Independent on Sunday calls Messud’s 2006 novel ‘a masterpiece’, and The Times deems it ‘thrillingly real, alive and utterly convincing… [an] intensely pleasurable reminder of the possibilities of the English language’. The New York Times concurs, writing that ‘Messud does a nimble, quicksilver job of portraying her central characters from within and without – showing us their pretensions, frailties and self-delusions, even as she delineates their secret yearnings and fears.’ It is, promises its blurb, a novel which ‘brings us face to face with the enduring gap between who we are and who we long to be.’
The Emperor’s Children focuses on four characters, three of whom – Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke – became firm friends whilst studying at Brown University during the 1990s. They are ‘young, bright New Yorkers living at America’s beating heart in the early years of the twenty-first century’, and are joined. The fourth character is Marina’s socially awkward cousin, Frederick Tubb, who is known as Bootie. He is ‘fresh from the provinces and keen to make his mark’ on the world. His arrival causes the three other protagonists to ‘confront their desires and leaves them dangerously exposed.’ Also examined in part are the parents of Danielle, Marina, and Bootie.
Danielle is working as a television producer, Julius makes his living by taking temporary secretarial job, and moneyed Marina has been procrastinating by halfheartedly working on a book for several years. In his introduction to the volume, Neel Mukherjee describes Marina as the ‘aimless daughter of the Thwaites, casting about for something to do and using her ongoing project of writing a book about Americans dress their children… as a kind of displacement activity’. He calls Julius a ‘gay, sharp, bitchy, and… self-invented man’. Danielle is perhaps, in this way, the only one of the three friends who is making a success of her life, but her story is fraught with problems too. Bootie has been used as ‘one of the oldest tropes in storytelling’, as ‘a stranger who turns everyone’s life upside down’.
Messud’s character descriptions are wonderful. When introducing Bootie’s mother, for instance, she writes: ‘she felt she walked into the light: the two large windows cast a shadowless opalescence onto the sprigged wallpaper, the family photos on top of the bureau. Even her discarded stockings, still carrying from yesterday the shape of her solid limbs, appeared outlined in light, luminous. Her hands and her hair, a grayed cloud, had carried up from the kitchen the smell of coffee, and the vents at her ankles pushed a warm wind around the floor. In spite of Bootie, in spite, in spite, in this moment at least, she felt happy: she was not too old to love even the snow.’
Messud is so involved with her characters and their quirks of personality throughout, that one comes to know them intimately. Throughout the novel, she places very in depth portrayals and explorations of self. Of Marina, she writes: ‘She sometimes felt as though she were a changeling, as hough someone completely new had taken on the identity of Marina Thwaite – or rather, as if someone who was seen from the outside to be completely new had done so, while beneath the surface she remained unchanged.’ When discussing Julius, Messud notes: ‘He was aware that at thirty he stretched the limits of the charming wastrel, that some actual sustained endeavor might be in order were he not to fade, wisplike, away: from charming wastrel to needy, boring failure was but a few, too few, short steps.’ Her characters are not entirely likeable, and some are almost odious in their privilege and behaviour. In consequence, I found all of Messud’s protagonists, and indeed the secondary figures who orbit around them, wholly believable.
A masterful quality in the novel is the way in which Messud focuses upon the nuances and tiny shifts in relationships, which still have the power to alter them irrevocably. The Emperor’s Children is not overly plot heavy; whilst things happen, particularly toward the final third of the novel, Messud is more interested in the reactions which her characters have to sudden, or brooding, changes in their situations.
There is, as anyone familiar with Messud’s writing might expect, an awful lot about morality and politics woven into The Emperor’s Children. Of this, Mukherjee writes: ‘Messud’s novel is political in the most inclusive, most intelligent understanding of that notion – it looks at the private sphere, at how individuals live in the world, how they conduct their lives, what their moral codes are, to give an indication of the bigger, wider world and the matrix of history in which these private lives are necessarily situated, the private and the public at once shaping and being shaped by each other.’ He goes on to say: ‘The questions it poses are enormous and profound. What is a person’s true, authentic self? Does a life need to be lived in continuous connection with that? What if the truest idea we have of our true selves is a false one, or one held in bad faith? Are our notions of authenticity confected, too?’ Whilst Mukherjee’s introduction is insightful, and certainly complements the novel, I would recommend that one reads it after finishing the novel, as it is rather revealing, and contains a lot of detailed commentary upon Messud’s characters and plot points.
Before beginning The Emperor’s Children, I was surprised to see so many negative reviews of it smattered on its Goodreads page. I am so pleased that I ignored these and read it regardless, as I ended up absolutely loving it, and found something to admire on every page. Messud’s writing provides a breath of fresh air, and gives one the ability to see characters and events, such as 9/11, from different angles. She is a unique author in many ways, but her prose style at times reminded me of Donna Tartt and Zoe Heller, merely due to the weight which it holds within its words. I can see why some might think that Messud’s prose is overwritten, but I found it both rich and sumptuous, as well as entirely absorbing. There is so much which can be unpicked within its pages, and I am sure that I will be thinking about it for months to come.
The Emperor’s Children is a phenomenal, searching novel, filled with profound meditations on life. Everything within it has been wonderfully handled, and it provokes thought at every turn. She also writes with poignant and moving language of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, which profoundly affect every character. As with her other books, I was absolutely blown away with this novel. Messud is an interesting, original writer, and I very much look forward to exploring the rest of her oeuvre in the near future.