Review of “Lord Jim at Home” by Dinah Brooke: A Reflection on a Sociopathic Aristocrat.
The novel “Lord Jim at Home” may not have been intended for those with weak constitutions, especially during its original release in 1973 when shocking the audience was a common literary tactic. It explores social anxieties that were prevalent in the two decades after World War II, when the ruling class feared that certain groups in society would defy the societal and cultural norms, reject capitalism, and prioritize personal enjoyment. Now, fifty years later, it is being reprinted with an introduction by Ottessa Moshfegh, who is known for her ability to shock and disturb readers.
Giles Trenchard was born into a wealthy family in Cornwall during the 1920s. He is quickly immersed into the upper middle class lifestyle, but his self-worth is diminished from a young age due to the neglect of his father and the strict control of his nanny. Despite these challenges, he still sees himself as a prince. His emotional development continues at Rugby, where he learns to survive through mediocrity and detachment, burying his suppressed desires and ambitions. As an adult, Giles is shaped by this conflicting upbringing, which is portrayed in Brooke’s novel through a series of events similar to the nanny’s lesson of right and wrong through soiled diapers.
This book was initially seen as a provocation against the societal norms, similar to Lindsay Anderson’s film If….. However, Brooke’s approach is more subtle yet confrontational. The story progresses quickly, often without clear signals. There are frequent instances of playful imitation, amusing shifts in tone and perspective. As the novel is advertised as a revision of Conrad’s Lord Jim, we anticipate Giles’ downfall; what we crave are the specifics. When they are revealed, they are just as provocative as we had hoped. Until then, the characters are portrayed with such skill and flashes of realism that we forget they are exaggerated versions – at least until the author needs us to remember. It is a mature version of Viz magazine, which the author manages with a surprising balance of control and impact.
In the late 1930s, Giles is stuck in a situation where he is unable to make his own decisions. When the second world war breaks out, he finds relief in serving as a seaman on the Conradian frigate Patusan. He is grateful to have someone else make decisions for him and is happy to be part of a group with his fellow crew members. They give him the nickname “the Lord”. The beginning of their journey is uneventful, with freezing weather and terrible food. They attempt to hunt a submarine but are unsuccessful. They realize that their purpose is not to fight in the war, but to stick together as friends on the ship. In this way, Giles’s time at sea is a perfect and peaceful escape. Even when the war finally reaches them, he is able to distance himself emotionally, even as his friends struggle. The author’s descriptions of battle at sea are intensely unpleasant, almost like an anthem, showcasing her talent for delivering a pseudo-comic tone. Her anger comes through clearly and cannot be ignored.
Following the war, our protagonist returns home to the beach. He struggles to navigate the murky moral and emotional aftermath of postwar London, finding solace in the drinking establishments and fleeting sexual encounters rather than relating to his own social class. Having failed at everything, he is now a panicked and alcoholic figure, a complex monster. It becomes clear why he abandoned the life expected of him and fell from a privileged heir to a despised and ridiculed “shadow prince”. He can be seen as a 1970s reinterpretation of Conrad’s Lord Jim, but also reminiscent of Anthony Powell’s rootless Uncle Giles from A Dance to the Music of Time.
In the introduction, Moshfegh seems to disapprove of the main character and describes him as lacking agency and self-definition. This is due to his upbringing, which was a systematic process. It may be difficult to sympathize with him for seeking revenge against his upbringing, but we are able to understand him thanks to Brooke’s exceptional skills. While the subject matter may be difficult to digest, similar to the unappetizing food on a young boy’s plate, the book’s success lies in its readability despite this.