A review by Anna Godbersen
Clem Glass, the photojournalist protagonist of Andrew Miller's careful and spare third novel, is no stranger to atrocity. But having witnessed the aftermath of a genocidal massacre in Africa, he loses his ability to view the world's nastier characters with the requisite professional remove. The massacre at the church in N-- (as Miller refers to it) was horrific on a whole other level. Back in England and understandably messed up, Clem engages in some light bad behavior (standing up a quasi-girlfriend, trying to get emotional with a prostitute, punching an obnoxious fellow on an airplane), and finds himself rudderless. His days are given some purpose when he finds that his older sister Clare, an art historian, has had a mental breakdown. The two retreat to a country cottage, where he nurses her until a news item drives him to develop the film from the church in N--, and face a very banal embodiment of evil.
The Optimists begins "After the massacre… Clem Glass flew back to London," and, indeed, Clem's struggle to live in a world he now knows to be inhumane fills the screen. This is not as ironically-titled a book as its subject matter might suggest; Miller dwells less on the atrocity committed at N-- than on how is character will come -- slowly, with difficulty -- to "regain some small, stubborn belief in others." The Optimists feels thin for the same reason: Where a study of violence or photography or the indifference of the modern world might be, is, instead, a story built on that worn theme, the endurance of the human spirit.
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