“Madness … is the salt,” novelist Nikos Kazantzakis once wrote, “which prevents good sense from rotting.” Seth – the protagonist of Sebastian Faulks’s new novel The Seventh Son – has only good sense, and this is his vulnerability. Seth is a Neanderthal, born to Londoners Mary and Alaric in the near future. The parents have no idea. Neither does their surrogate, Talissa. They’re all part of a tycoon’s decades-long experiment.
Seth is a person but he’s not homo sapiens. He lacks our sense of consequences, he loves less attentively and he isn’t as prone to mental illness, to our break between what is and what might otherwise be. After someone celebrates oil paintings, Seth thinks to himself: “The world was what it was.” Sadly, the world he lives in is also bigoted, paranoid, violent. Difference such as Seth’s is exciting – until it’s threatening and must be repressed or eliminated.
Faulks presents all this very plausibly. We know these people: the selfish plutocrat playing God, the reckless young scholar who “rents out” her womb for a fee, the strange, alienated child. The experts’ scientific and philosophical expositions are short and clear. Much of the story is told in unmannered dialogue, which changes with regions and socioeconomic classes.
Faulks’s descriptive passages are important too, especially those that highlight Seth’s foreign ways of being. Here, he watches his new girlfriend: “When the heating came on at full blast, as it sometimes unexpectedly did, she liked to strip off and walk around his rooms, like a domestic animal looking for a comfortable perch, proud of her long, collapsible limbs.” Seth has a way with animals.
Faulks’s handful of main characters are organic, their urgencies strong but humanly messy. Their relationships grow and decay naturally. Only one character seems mechanical, existing purely to make a point about homo sapiens. Talissa’s schizophrenic old boyfriend, Felix, is our species’ madness personified too helpfully.
The melancholy ending is gentle, not fixated on entertaining suffering or didactic moralising. Only the penultimate speculative passages seem out of place, as if Faulks did not trust the reader to speculate for themselves: “One day, hundreds of years into the future.”
Whether or not Faulks’s ideas of humanity are correct, his novel is an opportunity to imagine a foreign self without reducing them to pure sameness or pure otherness. Seth is not one of us, but he is one of us. He invites our curious, confused sympathy.
The same could be said for all of us.
Hutchinson Heinemann, 368pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 23, 2023 as "The Seventh Son".
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