there was a war on: you could tell that too from the untidy gaps between the Bloomsbury houses – a flat fireplace half-way up a wall, like the painted fireplace in a cheap dolls’ house, and lots of mirrors and green wall-papers, and from round a corner of the sunny afternoon the sound of glass being swept up, like the lazy noise of the sea on a shingle beach.
This extract from the opening of Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear sets the mood for the novel perfectly; the imagery of the dolls’ house prepares for the surreal atmosphere of the book, as does the use of mirrors and eerily familiar interiors for the nightmare world of Arthur Rowe. The numbed familiarity of the London Blitz is also brought to the fore; writing in 1943, Greene brilliantly sketches the backdrop of a capital at war – strong enough for a modern reader to taste the sound, smell and fear of the bombings.
The Ministry of Fear is one of Greene’s oddest books, and reads at times like his usual prose has been soaked in Kafka and Conrad. The brilliant opening chapter finds Rowe at a sorry wartime fête, where he correctly guesses the weight of a cake on the advice of a fortune teller. Here’s starts Greene’s own nightmarish take on the wrong man story, with Rowe pursued by dark forces across a London under threat of the air raid. It’s a brilliant tale, illuminated by the panic and uncertainly of 40s London. As usual, Greene can say a lot in few words; whilst the novel is brief it is also dense and layered, proving again that he is not always the easy author we take him to be.
Unfortunately this novel doesn’t live up to its early promise. Perhaps I was more interested in the background of the Blitz rather than the plot, which attempts to unravel the weird set pieces, which include a murder at a séance, an encounter with a seedy bookseller and a spell in a sinister hospital, to explain itself more logically. This somehow takes the fun out of things, but The Ministry of Fear is worth a read for an example of good literature that just doesn’t age.