It wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear
by Graham Greene

Once upon a time I read a couple of Graham Greene books and really enjoyed them, then I promptly forgot about him as an author. Fast-forward several years and I have finally come back to him thanks to Simon of Savidge Reads, who is running a challenge called Greene for Gran,in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. It’s such a nice way to pay respect to someone for whom books were important.

This book has one of the greatest opening chapters I have read in a long time. Arthur Rowe goes to a vicarage fête, which sounds like a pretty dull unpromising beginning, but not so. For starters it’s in London during the Blitz, so there’s immediately a surreal atmosphere surrounding the attempt at normality, with some dark humour about the limited prizes on offer. But even beyond this, there are sinister undertones, foreshadowing the shadowy spy novel that this is going to turn into.

“There was something about a fête which drew Arthur Rowe irresistibly, bound him a helpless victim to the distant blare of the band and the knock-knock of wooden balls against coconuts. Of course this year there were no coconuts because there was a war on; you could tell that too from the untidy gaps between the Bloomsbury houses.”

Arthur wins a cake, but there appears to have been some mistake, and first a series of people try to get the cake off him, then mysterious forces appear to be coming after him. It all seems a bit farcical at first, but never annoyingly so. The humour always has a dark undertone. The depiction of the Blitz is scarily believable (which makes sense for a book published in 1943) and the thriller elements genuinely had me on edge, but the book never gets too dark.

“‘Have another piece of cake?’ Rowe asked. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for the man: it wasn’t courage that freed him from fear so much as loneliness. ‘It may not be…’ he waited till the scream stopped and the bomb exploded – very near this time – ‘…much.’ They waited for a stick to drop, pounding a path towards them, but there were no more.”

Arthur is a great character. There is something bad in his past, which both explains why he is not fighting in the war and why he is how he is – saddened and distanced. I love that the back story is given in pieces, so for a long time we are left to wonder whether the bad thing in Arthur’s past was justified or not. (Incidentally, this part is completely given away in the blurb on the back of my copy, which thankfully I didn’t read before starting the book. Also, I’ve realised that my favourite passages, highlighted while I was reading, relate to this reveal, so I won’t quote them here.)

“Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the air of an embarrassing dream as of man’s serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to your neighbour’s gaze.”

There is a big switch in pace halfway through the book and it shows how good a writer Greene was that he gets away with this. The one thing that doesn’t change, but just keeps building up throughout the book, is the fear. It’s so cleverly done, beginning with little more than a spine tingle of a warning at the vicarage fête.

I greatly enjoyed this book and am now eager to read the other Greene I had left sat on the TBR for too long – The Heart of the Matter.

Published 1943 by William Heinemann.

Source: I really don’t remember. I have a 1972 Penguin edition so it was clearly secondhand but there’s no pencil-written price or stickers anywhere that I can find. Charity shop?

See also: Simon’s review over at Savidge Reads.

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