The British class system is a curious thing. It is, on the surface at least, less rigid than in the past, and yet it continues to influence British society and affect the lives of British people. The days of forelock-tugging subservience may be largely over, but those at the top end of the spectrum nevertheless enjoy consistently better opportunities than those who are lower down. This is often accepted with a shrug, as a slight quirk in the social structure; Dennis Hamley’s Out of the Mouths of Babes forces you to see it in starkly human terms.
The structure of Out of the Mouths of Babes has echoes of a Greek tragedy: from the opening act there are presentiments of an oncoming catastrophe. Three children are all born on the same day, but into completely different circumstances. Their lives will come together in several unexpected ways, and – as in a Greek tragedy – there seems nothing that any of them can do to alter their fate.
Julian, born into wealth and privilege, stands at one end of the social spectrum. Even the name of his family home, Mockbeggar House, gives an indication as to the kind of people who reside within: people of wealth and power who seem unable to question their own privilege, or to extend a great deal of sympathy to those who, through no fault of their own, are less privileged. From the moment of his birth, much of Julian’s life seems to be preordained: “Prep school, public school and Oxford must follow in due course as they always had for male Claverhouses.” Along with money and status, Julian also inherits many of his parents’ attitudes: complacency, an unquestioning conservatism, and contempt for those who are beneath him in the pecking order. Needless to say, he’s an unsympathetic character – until Hamley takes us further into his mind, and demonstrates that he is, in his own way, as much a victim of circumstances as anyone.
At the other end of the social scale is Gary, a naturally gifted child whose narrow and impoverished circumstances mean that he will never achieve his full potential. He belongs to that class of people who, in Julian’s words and eyes, “mean nothing, make nothing ... are nothing.” Nothing could be further from Julian’s comfortable upbringing, yet by the time they become adults their lives are already inextricably linked. Gary grows into an embittered man, his taciturn manner concealing a world of rage.
Binding the two men still more tightly is Grizelda, the adored child of middle-class hippies made good. “Just be yourself and be beautiful,” is all that her parents ever expected her to do. Grizelda is, aptly, “in the middle”: committed to Julian but able to see Gary’s untapped potential; able to dislike Julian’s attitudes without hating the man himself. It is Grizelda’s chance meeting with Gary that sets off a chain of events that soon gain shocking momentum.
At this point the novel sprung a surprise on me, and in a good way. I was expecting a straightforward romance to develop between Gary and Grizelda. In fact, there’s nothing straightforward about any of the characters’ interactions, which are as complex and troubled as their social circumstances and inner lives. Needless to say, I didn’t get my romance; what I got instead was a much deeper and more profound story about how a person’s entire life can be shaped by their childhood circumstances. “Give me the child, and I will give you the man,” ran the Jesuit slogan, and the stories of Julian, Gary, and Grizelda demonstrate the truth of the maxim.
Hamley effortlessly guides the story to its shocking conclusion, moving in and out of the three characters’ lives, and enabling us to follow both their increasingly troubled inner lives and the series of events that overtake them. I don’t think it’s too great a spoiler to say that the final outcome of those events can hardly be a happy one. But it’s also true to say that whatever your political convictions or social background, Out of the Mouths of Babes will keep you reading right up to the last page. At heart – and in another echo of a Greek tragedy – this is an all-too-human drama that transcends the time and society in which it is set.