This book by A.N. Wilson has an "old" style that is rare in the modern novels I read -- an intricate use of language. I had to slow down to read it, and I can find a certain pleasure in the style. As for deeper connections, I'm the sort of guy who got Bs and Cs in literature courses, and leave it to others to evaluate it as Art.
At the center of the story is Oliver, a successful and somewhat famous professor, of whom great things are expected. One of his adoring students (Cuffe) leads him into the odd household where most of the book takes place. It features a widow (Janet), her daughter (Michal), the daughter's daughter (Bobs, short for Roberta) and the nanny (Lotte). As the author introduces the household in considerable detail, the position of Bobs is sketched by omission. It is in the briefest asides that we learn that none of them like her or children in general, her mother is especially ineffectual, and the nanny is "rather simple". All of the women adore Oliver, and also are aware that he shows no romantic or sexual interest in females. They think perhaps he is gay, but they adore him nonetheless, and his lack of interest is what allows this situation to remain stable for seven years. He lives in the attic, with no academic responsibilities. It's considered a bonus that he seems happy taking on much of the responsibility for Bobs and that Bobs also adores him -- the fifth female in the house to feel that way, though of course her interest is that of a child. Before long Bobs moves to the other room in the attic.
There are long descriptions of philosophy, philosophers, and Oliver's intellectual history in dealing with them and his ideas. It all sounds plausible to me, but a separate story line that has no apparent integration with the main story. But we are also introduced to the idea that Oliver thinks children deserve sexual liberation -- something he blurts out within a philosophical panel debate -- live, on a radio broadcast to millions. When Wilson then takes us into his head, we find he has felt this all along and until then has kept it secret -- and vows to himself never to mention it again. He also realizes that his sole sexual attraction is to children. He fantasizes about them. Late in the book we learn that he also has a very strong sexual appetite, and his most typical masturbation is inspired by looking at Charles Dodgson's 19th-century photographs of naked little girls. These are examples of the "Dream Children" of the title. His fate is to get solo sexual satisfaction from children he dreams of. He isn't particularly ashamed of his attraction, just frustrated that he can never live it out in reality.
He is not initially interested in or attracted to 3-year-old Bobs, but when she is 4 he comes to adore her and sees this as an unexpected chance to be intimate with another person. And from the ages of 4 to 10, they have a special friendship. They love each other -- person to person. Initially he is expressing his love at the same level as Bobs -- a child-like level. She sleeps in his bed at night, and he adores looking at her and touching her -- but it is sensual, not sexual.
After a few years sexual activity creeps in, but this seems very much secondary to the friendship. This we learn for certain when Wilson takes us at different points into the heads of Oliver, the 10-year-old Bobs, and the 27-year-old Bobs. Oliver confides to the reader that if he can satisfy some of his strong sexual desire with Bobs, that's great, but there's plenty left over to be handled alone.
When Bobs is 10, Oliver decides that he must wrench himself free of her, because their relationship poses a great danger to him, she will inevitably pull away, and the slow death of their special friendship is far more painful to contemplate than a clean break. His plan for getting free is to marry a woman outside the household and move to America. Most of the plot concerns how the various women of the house react to this news and try to get him to call off the wedding and stay at the house.
He does move out, but if he hadn't, we can wonder what would happen as Bobs enters puberty and becomes sexually unattractive to him, though this issue is never raised. Since the core of their friendship is non-sexual, it seems unlikely to be a problem for Oliver. Perhaps a bigger problem would arise when Bobs's own sexual desires came into full bloom. Even bigger would be the inevitable questioning and rebellion that comes with the teenage years. The way Bobs as an adult sees the situation is, "She understood well enough, with the perspective of time and age, that Oliver would have felt great embarrassment to continue living with Roberta as she grew up. She knew too much, and too much of which the others all knew nothing. She just wished, and sometimes she had wished it to the point of heartbreak, that he could have attempted, however embarrassing it was, to have ... made a little farewell speech." She might have wished for a farewell speech, but I can't see that it would actually have changed much. What she imagines as "embarrassment" would I think more accurately have been felt by Oliver as "terror" (of the discovery) and "profound anguish" (at the relationship's changing).
What we see here at the start is a very typical pattern for child sex abuse -- a girl is seriously short of adult attention, and latches onto a man who provides her with the attention she craves. If he wants to do a few sexual things, that's OK with her (at least at the time) as another sort of game, even if it's not her favorite one. But in this case Oliver is not in it for the sex and adores her at all levels.
Much is revealed at the very end of the book about how this all plays out in the years that follow, and in terms of the situation that the bulk of the book has painted, there could be plenty of other equally plausible endings. Oliver does marry a woman (a lesbian) and moves to America, and they adopt two children and raise them, Oliver being an attentive father and househusband. Bobs is a successful career woman. She has presumably tried out a few boyfriends, but they aren't for her, as the only man she has ever loved is Oliver. She lives with and cares for her mother (and the aging nanny) and expects nothing further of her romantic life. At the very end Bobs meets Oliver and his younger child, a girl (Oliver's wife has committed suicide some years earlier). We are left to wonder at the end what that relationship is, how Bobs will perceive it, and what her reaction will be. She already knew of Cal's existence. Possibilities range from her angrily going public with the story of her abuse to the two of them deciding to get married.
Wikipedia's plot summary is: "Paedophilia is at the heart of the story. Oliver Gold's pure thoughts, and seemingly asexual life contrast with the reality of his desires and deeds. Oliver abuses Bobs over a long period." This is a mis-reading of the book. Our excursions into Bobs's head suggest that if Oliver ruined her, it was from the emotional connection, not the physical one. Bobs could have had an intense childhood friendship with a peer during that period, or a close non-romantic relationship with an uncle or aunt who would die or move away when she is 10, with similar results. We are taken into her adult head when she is 27. There is plenty of time for her in the years ahead to decide to form a relationship. She even has ten more years in which to have children of her own.
In the stereotypical pedophile story, sex with Bobs would be the culmination of Oliver's life -- the peak experience, and the fundamental reason he got close to her at all. Bobs as an adult would realize this and feel deeply betrayed. But neither of those things is true in this story. Adult Bobs doesn't suggest that she ever had a strong desire to spill the beans, which is plausible as she felt no felt no particular torment about the sexual aspect of their relationship.
I have blogged that <pedophiles need to avoid more than sex>https://celibatepedos.blogspot.com/2016/02/pedophiles-need-to-avoid-more-than-sex.html. The book and movie <"Lamb">https://celibatepedos.blogspot.com/2016/01/review-of-movie-and-book-lamb.html make a clear case for this. Surely we would tell Oliver when he first considers something sexual with Bobs that he must refrain.
But as for how things actually turned out, Wilson portrays a very special friendship and relationship for both Bobs and Oliver. As for future complications, life is what happens while you're making other plans.
No story of a pedophile and a girl has affected me so deeply. I am profoundly envious of their non-sexual relationship. At one point Bobs wonders if they could devise a new unit to measure level of anxiety. They do, and call it a "dentist". Mild anxiety is half a dentist, pretty strong anxiety is four dentists. That level of creativity and playfulness would be priceless. Such a close friendship might have been possible 40 years ago, but today's social climate would not allow it.
Added to above, 7/30/2020, NOTE this date is after that of the "synthesis" post below.
I wrote my first version of this review (above) shortly after finishing the book. Four days later, I have some additional thoughts. I am leaving the part above exactly as it was.
I said that I was profoundly envious of the non-sexual relationship between Bobs and Oliver. I am.
On a few days' reflection, I have much less sympathy for Oliver. The book omits a crucial time -- the moment when Oliver saw fit to introduce sex into his relationship with Bobs. It's OK with me that he is exclusively attracted to children sexually -- it's not his choice so it's not up to me to be OK with it or not. It's OK if he thinks that children can consent to sexuality -- in theory. But it is not OK to let sexuality enter his actual relationship with the actual Bobs, given the world we live in. It's not that Bobs will be unhappy about it at the time -- as the fiction is presented, Oliver has enough sensitivity and deep caring for Bobs to have detected that and immediately stopped any tentative advances.
When Bobs muses at age 27 about whether Oliver confided to his late wife about their games with "bananas and cream", she is telling us that his ejaculating penis was part of Bobs' experience (though unclear whether she was licking the banana or consuming the cream). She also reflects that she retained her power because she retained her virginity. Oliver at one point says she was feeling pleasure, and while her reminiscence does not contradict that, she doesn't see fit to mention it. So we have a fair picture of the limits of their sexual activity. It was way more than kissing or ambiguous fondling.
There are two grave problems, both of which Oliver should have foreseen. One is that he had no way of knowing that Bobs would not come to feel awful about the sex over time -- the fictional Bobs when she is aged to 27 did not, but that may be based on details of her personality and circumstances. The second is that at the moment that sex entered the picture he put upon her a need to keep a secret. She was likely keeping many other secrets about what she and Oliver did together, because she wanted to. But if she had decided she wanted to confide all those, nothing terrible would have happened. But the moment she decides she wants to tell about sexual activity, she has a dilemma -- keep a secret she does not want to keep, or blow Oliver's life apart.
Could Oliver have had such an intense friendship with Bobs, a strong sexual attraction to her, no other prospect of satisfying sex in his life, and never acted on it? If not, then he had an obligation not to let his relationship with Bobs get so intense.
If he could keep sex out of it, we are not entirely out of the woods. He still may have felt the need to wrench himself free of her when she turned 10 or so because of the strength of his feelings. If so, then he also had an obligation not to let the relationship get so intense. But without wrenching himself free he could have ended things in a positive way. For instance, he could move out of the house, to a place in London not too far away. He could initially continue to visit with Bobs a few times a week, gradually weaning her off of frequent visits and expectations of a special friendship, while still letting her process her grief and other feelings as they change and develop. While the women of the house may have been delighted not to have to deal with Bobs, they were not entirely neglectful. After he moved out they did rise to the occasion and finish raising Bobs. So another path here is for Oliver to have been honest with the others about his strong emotional attraction, allowing them to intervene if they saw fit, and allowing Bobs to confide to them absolutely everything that happened.
Suppose we imagine the world that Oliver proposes in his radio address, where children have sexual agency. Imagine Oliver asking permission of Bobs's mother about doing sexual things with her. Imagine the mother consulting with Bobs and the two of them saying yes. I don't see any necessary disaster in that scenario. Yet I think such a world would be dangerous, as the mother's assent might well have been a quid pro quo. Michal, Bobs's mother, had a strong motivation to approve because of her desperate desire for Oliver to stay in the house rather than moving out. Bobs's own assent in the actual story sounds like a quid pro quo as well. "Prostitution" is a continuum that ranges from a man's marital commitment to support his wife in exchange for having sex with her regularly, all the way to the starkest commercial transaction. Some people are fine with all stages of that continuum as it pertains to adults. Most have grave concerns when they think of children on this continuum.
Setting aside that speculative world, I have sketched a way that the intense friendship between Bobs and Oliver that I envy so much could have developed so as not to be harmful. The book is fiction, but we can ask whether such a positive outcome is realistic, given Oliver as he is presented. I have my doubts. The fictional Oliver deserves our serious and thorough condemnation. He made a huge mistake and caused much grief to the girl he loved.
I still do not give up on the possibility of an intense, non-sexual friendship between a pedophile and a girl with a happy, healthy ending and no need to keep secrets. But it would be difficult, and the book helps us to see why.