Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

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