One of Us by Melissa Benn
Melissa Ann Benn is a British journalist and writer. She is the only daughter of the British labour politician,Tony Benn and his wife Caroline. Tony Benn was a much respected conviction politician who lived his life by his beliefs. She has three brothers one of whom, Hilary Benn, followed his father into politics in the UK. The author was born in Hammersmith, London, and educated at Holland Park School, thereafter at London School of Economics and Political Science. Melissa Benn now lives in London with her husband Paul Gordon, and their two daughters. In accordance with her support for the state education system, her children attend state schools.
One of Us is Melissa Benn’s second novel. It was published in 2008. The story is of two families set with the backdrop of the Iraq War. It is about the fraught relationship between the political and the personal aspects of life. Benn’s heroine is a writer, Anna Adams, who is grieving for her brother Jack. She is adamant that the full truth of his death be made public in defiance of a government cover-up. In the days following the invasion of Iraq, she meets in secret with a journalist, determined to get to the bottom of the full story.
Anna’s story goes back 30 years and deals with the friendship between two families of the London intelligentsia. We are introduced to the Adams and the Givings families when they first meet. It is Sunday lunch, very British and very genteel: an important scene, vividly imagined. It carefully establishes the dynamics that will lead decades later to catastrophe.
Anna is only 11, her father is a distinguished lawyer who is entertaining a talented colleague and his young family: the dynamic Andy Givings. Andy is destined for political greatness. This is a dramatic contemporary novel about the dangerous space between family and political life. This a story about how decent human beings are turned by politics and power, and how ambition can clash with private values and human frailties.
The Givings family and the Adams family become inextricably linked. They are like an extended family to Anna and her siblings: beautiful Laura, ambitious Matt, and Jack, always the rebel. Jack despises his parents’ liberalism and grows up to work for a housing charity. He is more at home with the people of the streets than with his family.
Anna marries a successful radical lawyer, produces children but feels unfulfilled. When Andy Givings announces that he is thinking of going into politics, Anna wonders how he could do that. However, her fond family friend morphs into a rising political star attended by his closest aide and adviser, Anna’s elder brother Matt.
Bearing in mind the author’s own family it is unsurprising that Andrew Givings has much in common with Tony Blair and, that he, with Matt’s support, fully backs the war on Iraq. Her other brother, Jack is vulnerable and becomes increasingly unstable and painfully idealistic. He is horrified by Matt’s support of Givings. But this is not a simple book. The personal ties that precede political divides persist. One of Us is full of fallible human beings. Benn is very good on the complexity of emotion. Anna, as a betrayed woman, confronts her husband with the truth and despite the final, bitter end of a long marriage, feels sorry for him. People care for and simultaneously despise one another. Love does not always find a way. The political landscape this author paints is murky and ruthless, but she never lets us forget that everybody is human.