Jane Rogers' The Voyage Home is similar enough to Hilary Mantel's A Change of Climate, published a decade earlier, that one wonders if Rogers had it in mind.1 Both Rogers and Mantel write parallel plots, with the narrative moving back and forth between a repressed past and an uneasy present. In A Change of Climate, a husband-and-wife missionary team travel to Africa, where they discover that the missionary experience is not precisely what they had in mind; after some misadventures, brought on by overconfidence and sheer obtuseness, they experience an event so traumatic that they never speak of it again. Decades of do-gooding and infidelity later, their marriage finally implodes, until a self-destructive (and destructive, period) teenager finally offers them the possibility of redemption. And in The Voyage Home, David and Miriam Harrington, a husband-and-wife missionary team, travel to post-emancipation Nigeria, where they discover that the missionary experience is not precisely what they had in mind; after some misadventures, brought on by overconfidence and sheer obtuseness,the husband has an affair with one of his students, Amoge. When Amoge reveals her pregnancy, David rejects her and confesses to his wife, simultaneously demolishing both his local reputation and his marriage; he attempts to redeem himself with relief work during the Nigerian Civil War, but only incurs new nightmares. Decades later, his daughter Anne, returning from her trip to Lagos to retrieve his body, makes two traumatic discoveries: her father's diary and the presence of two refugees aboard ship, one of them a sick pregnant woman. Believing herself unable to help the woman, Anne tells the seductive first mate about the refugees' presence, with horrific results. Redemption, however, proves difficult to find.
In many ways, The Voyage Home is a far harsher novel that A Change of Climate, precisely because it denies that the characters can consciously experience redemption, let alone find comfort in forgiveness. The novel invokes multiple modes of Christian belief: the varying responses of the Nigerian converts, ranging from sincere devotion to canny exploitation; David Harrington's self-satisfied Anglicanism, shot through with the deadly sins of pride and lust; and Anne's own post-Christian atheism, still inflected by her upbringing. Moreover, Christian themes and narratives structure the plot, yet often ironically or incompletely. When David asks Anne--then in her late thirties--if she will ever have a child, she snarkily suggests that "perhaps you could ask your God to arrange an immaculate conception" (65). But the snark reminds us of Saint Anne, descended from King David, who gave birth to the Virgin Mary. This is all the more to the point in a story that begins close to Christmas and dwells intensely on pregnancy. (I'll come back to this in a moment.) David, contemplating the Nigerian teenage girls, writes that they possess "an almost prelapsarian innocence" (97)--then promptly falls (pun intended) for Amoge, his daughter's nanny. Later, he insists that "I've emerged from the valley onto the uplands again. He tested my Faith, to strengthen it" (216), only to encounter suffering more brutal than he could have ever imagined. The diary, in fact, reveals that David's Christian self-image undergoes a series of destructive shocks, ranging from his discovery that forgiveness does not necessarily effect change, to his fall into adultery, to his eventual realization that human agony, even his own agony, may not be about him. Because we read this diary in installments, like Anne, our assessment of his plot undergoes its own shocks: we may well wish to write him off as a stock character, the typical misguided liberal in a postcolonial novel--an urge supported by David's unreliable narrative voice--but his willingness to admit wrongdoing and decenter himself calls our responses into question. Nevertheless, he cannot do anything to remedy the suffering he caused. His ex-wife is dead, Amoge is dead, his daughter Lily (another link to the Virgin Mary) has been sold into prostitution, and Anne seems to be morally paralyzed.
Anne's own life repeats elements from her father's, but always by fracturing or distorting them. She too commits adultery, including after her own marriage, but she is the "other woman" (and thus closer to Amoge). When she tells Robbie, the first mate, about the refugees, she wildly magnifies her father's own mistaken willingness to forgive and re-employ a small-time crook; indeed, she persists in believing that Robbie is basically a decent person, even though he assaults her, spews bigoted tripe about Nigerians, and effectively confesses that murder is in the cards! Similarly, in betraying Estelle, the pregnant woman, she echoes her father's betrayal of Amoge. At the same time, her "decision" does not really seem to be anything of the sort, because Robbie manipulates her into it--just as Tim, her married boyfriend, manipulates her into aborting their child. Even her "decision" to attend art school, we find, was really prompted by her father's dismay. Everything she does is either in accord with or a reaction against a domineering, even abusive man; it's no wonder that she sacrifices Joseph, the helpless refugee. And like her father, she discovers that confession, along with the quest for redemption and forgiveness, is essentially self-centered and ineffective: although she eventually tells the authorities about Joseph and the murder, nothing happens, and he rejects both her and her offers of assistance (232).
In the novel's final sentence, Anne "tries to remember if she has ever chosen anything in her life before" (334), but it is hard to read her choice itself as redemptive. Anne and Vic have been going through fertility treatment to deal with Vic's low sperm count (another echo of her father's past: Amoge had thought she was infertile, but her husband was actually at issue). Finally, she becomes pregnant--but the child is Tim's, her longtime adulterous boyfriend, and Tim impregnates her during a rape (which she, very typically, believes is "what she deserves" ). This violence is far from an immaculate conception, and her decision to keep the child means that she must keep silent about not only the adultery, but the rape as well. By bearing this child, she realizes, she makes herself "responsible" for everyone's "happiness": "She is admitting to herself that she is outside what could ever be atoned or forgiven, that she must keep her secret from him [Vic] always and never let it harm him. In protecting him, might she at least begin to make amends?" (331) It is not, in fact, clear that she can "make amends," nor can we really believe that the child will somehow fix this marriage (Vic, true to the novel's form, seems unpredictable and dominating); similarly, her unwillingness to see Tim's behavior as anything other than a deserved punishment hardly frees her from victimhood. By not confessing, she breaks her father's pattern, but keeping silent brings its own suffering. "It isn't a fairy story," she admits to herself, "wrongs can't be put right, Lily can't be given back her youth or innocence, happiness can't be restored" (332). Just as her father cannot save Lily, so Anne cannot continue to dream that her child is Estelle's child, somehow magically reborn (327). If we take the novel's Christian themes seriously, the child Anne bears is the opposite of the Virgin Mary, conceived in suffering and sin. And yet, because the child carries with it the promise of a future, any future, it offers, if not redemption--for the characters must all abandon their desire for redmeption--then hope. But that hope rests, not on the child, but on Anne and her willingness to be "responsible," to "choose."
1 Milada Frankova also briefly notes the two novels' overlapping concerns in "Jane Rogers' Novel Explorations," Brno Studies in English 31 (2005): 134.