How would Socrates get on in 21st-century Britain? This is the question at the heart of Samantha Harvey’s ambitious second novel, and she can’t be accused of going for it half-heartedly.
William Deppling may live in contemporary Islington - but, like his Greek predecessor, he’s a sandal-wearing seeker after philosophical truth, whose conversation consists largely of asking abstract questions.
Her first book, The Wilderness, made Harvey a rising star. Here, though, she never solves the problem of combining realistic fiction with uncompromising philosophy. William is clearly supposed to be both admirable and exasperating.
Yet for much of the novel, the admirable side is hard to spot. Instead, he’s more of a windy old bore, giving the other characters his dialectical reasoning for pages at a time. Nor are his insights always that startling. (We should, he suggests, accept our problems as part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’.)
The resemblance to Socrates also means that William has to be tried for corrupting the minds of youth. Unfortunately, even leaving aside the improbability of his appeal to his young disciples, this plot doesn’t feel remotely plausible in modern Britain - making the novel seem more than ever like a brave but ultimately failed intellectual exercise.