A fascinating religious allegory is built from the barest and unlikeliest of materials in this enigmatic and quite remarkable third novel by the British author of The Restraint of Beasts (1998) and All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999).
The unnamed narrator begins and ends his story by describing his contented existence in a tin house situated on a solitary plain. But his solitude is broken when a woman, Mary Petrie (who seems to know him), inexplicably moves in and starts giving orders, and when his (distant) neighbors begin visiting, then inform him of their respectful obsession with one Michael Hawkins, a recluse (and, presumably, a sage) who leads “a supposedly marvelous existence somewhere beyond the horizon.” People begin flocking westward, the narrator eventually among them, to join in the construction of a canyon (a lifelong fantasy of the narrator’s, as it happens), under Hawkins’s supervision, where more permanent homes can be erected. But envy and conflict creep into Michael Hawkins’s utopia, and the tale ends with the narrator back in his tin domicile, persuaded all has been for the best. Mills’s very title, as well as several unmistakably biblical character names (Michael, Mary, Simon), of course evokes both the journey of the magi to observe the Christ child and the martyrdom of a beloved leader whose followers turn on him. But other particulars of this rigorously spare, understated tale hint at such thematic possibilities as the frailty of the physical “housing” in which the soul resides, the conflict between the individual ego and the world that contains and (so to speak) restrains it (“ . . . a man remains master in his own house, so long as he observes all the rules”), and the mingled fear and relief with which the mortal body embarks on its slow passage toward death. There’s real genius in the range of symbolic and emotional effects that this contemporary Kafka (or Beckett, as some have noted) wrests from his fiction’s simple, economical essentials.
Wonderful, mind-bending stuff. Don’t miss it.