“Once we lived in a summer country,” recalls Eve, the narrator of Lydia Millet’s stunning new novel, A Children’s Bible. The teenager isn’t prone to sentimentality, but when disaster hits the waterfront mansion where she, her parents, and a large group of other children and adults are vacationing, she can’t help looking back fondly on the days before her world—like that of many Americans—was irrevocably turned on its head.
Eve is the daughter of a feminist scholar and a sculptor; she and her beloved younger brother, Jack, have been dragged on a summer vacation with their parents’ friends and their offspring. The younger characters quickly form an ad hoc coterie, united mostly by their loathing of the adults. “They aimed their conversation like a dull gray beam,” Eve tells us. “It hit us and lulled us into a stupor. What they said was so boring it filled us with frustration, and after more minutes, rage.”
Deprived by their parents of their smartphones, Eve and the other kids spend their days running along the beach, drinking, smoking weed, and committing casual acts of vandalism. (Except sweet Jack, who whiles away the hours reading his cherished children’s Bible and finding animals to care for.) Eve also contemplates the end of the world. “Scientists said it was ending now, philosophers said it had always been ending,” she muses. “Politicians claimed everything would be fine.… This was how we could tell it was serious. Because they were obviously lying. We knew who was responsible, of course: it had been a done deal before we were born.”
Her worries prove prescient. The children return from a brief excursion to the beach to find their parents scrambling to prepare for a hurricane. Their main concern seems to be running out of liquor. When the storm hits and floods the house, the adults reach “new heights of repulsive,” getting drunk, snorting cocaine, and participating in an ecstasy-fueled orgy.
Realizing that they’ll have to strike out on their own, the kids commandeer their parents’ cars. (“They’ll find us,” Eve thinks. “When we want them to.”) But the roads have become impassable, and they end up sheltering at a nearby farm. Then things get really bad: a gang of men, looking to steal food and supplies, discover them, turning their lives into an even worse kind of hell.
A Children’s Bible is a dizzying novel, as Millet keeps us off balance from beginning to end. The narrative starts out quite funny, with the contempt the precocious children have for their parents on full display. “We were strict with the parents,” Eve tells us: “punitive measures were taken. Thievery, mockery, contamination of food and drink.” Her tone pivots hard, though, with the entry of those men—the scenes of torture and casual brutality committed by the marauders are almost unbearable, as, of course, they need to be.
Millet is a brilliant stylist; some of her novels, like Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and Magnificence, are as good as any published in the past several years. Her writing in A Children’s Bible is as strong as it’s ever been: “Each person, fully grown, was sick or sad, with problems attached to them like broken limbs,” Eve reflects at one point. “What people wanted to be, but never could, traveled along beside them. Company.”
What Millet is offering is a moral novel for the generation that grew up with climate change as an inevitability, and it’s no surprise that the author—a longtime environmentalist who works at the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson—writes with a palpable anger that morphs into outright rage. “You gave up the world,” one child tells an oblivious adult. “You let them turn it all to shit,” says another.
A Children’s Bible is unapologetically apocalyptic, and it arrives at a particularly fraught time. Readers will find much that they have come, in the past few months, to recognize: hoarding, price gouging, the tragedy of the commons playing out over and over again. Literature never exists in a vacuum, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to consider Millet’s novel apart from the crisis that the world is facing.
And why try? A Children’s Bible is a beautiful, brutal novel that calls all of us to account for abandoning our stewardship of the earth, but it is also a tender, sensitive look at the generations doomed to deal with the broken planet we will leave behind. “Why are we always complaining?” Eve asks at one point. “We get to be alive.” That’s true for now. It might not be for long.
Michael Schaub is a regular contributor to NPR. He lives in Texas.
- By Lydia Millet
- W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $25.95