Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: Nemesis by Philip Roth

Before this, I had not read a thing by the much acclaimed Philip Roth, but have wanted to give his work a go for some time.  So while browsing at a recent book sale, here in Australia, the lovely yellow tones of this hardcover definitely called to me and I added it to the pile.

Nemesis is set in a Newark community in the summer of 1944.  War is raging in Europe and the Pacific, and a polio epidemic has broken out in the US.  The story focuses on Eugene "Bucky" Cantor's response to the polio outbreak.  Bucky is 23, and a dedicated physical education instructor running a summertime recreation program for the local kids.  Unlike all of  his friends he is at home during wartime because of extreme shortsightedness, which prevented him from signing up.

This is Bucky's story, and explores how the horror of the polio outbreak, that apparently randomly strikes down children and young people in their prime, literally devastates his life forever.

I appreciated Roth's writing; the reading is effortless, and he maintains good tension from beginning to end.  I felt like every word had been carefully selected and used to maximum effect.  There are subtle touches too that demonstrate the precision he wields with his words.  For instance, throughout much of the narrative, Bucky is referred to as Mr Cantor, which signifies how he sees himself, as responsible for, and an example to his young charges.

The novel realistically evokes what it must be like when an incurable disease breaks out in a community.  Roth describes what happens when fear and ignorance take hold and uncontrolled emotions erupt from normally rational people. 

There is a clear singular message from the novel, and that is how an individual is ultimately shaped by the meaning they attribute to events in their life.  Bucky was an ordinary, earnest young man of his generation, determined to do the best he could for his community and his loved ones, but his attempts to grapple with uncontrollable events destroyed his future.

My understanding is that the idea of events shaping lives, is a theme that has emerged in Philip Roth's more recent work.  I found it interesting, well written and very serious.  To be honest I am usually looking for a bit more humour or wit in a novel, but there was certainly no place for either here.  I was moved by Bucky's story and I daresay the echo of it will remain with me for some time. 

I would love to know what others think of Philip Roth's work?  What are your favourites by him?


  1. I am like you were - someone who always intends to read something by Roth but has never actually got around to it. I don't think I even own a book by him. This one sounds fascinating, I like the sound of the main theme too. It makes me wonder whether I could say the same thing about my own life (except without the polio outbreak).

  2. I'm like you were and Becky is - never read him. I do mean to, in fact I bought a copy of The Human Stain (at a book sale too!) but I haven't read it yet. This one sounds very good.

  3. Becky - I am interested to read some more by him. I would be interested to see if his other work also has this - it's like a simmering anger or something underneath - about how events can completely change people.

    Mummazappa - I saw the film of The Human Stain and really liked it, even though I think it received mixed reviews.

  4. Great thoughtful review Mel.

    I have read The Human Stain, and thought it was excellent; it is a dark book in tone, with traces of sarcasm thrown in. I thought it was excellent -- in contrast to this one, I think the theme, as I recall, is rather than events changing people, it is more about how the decisions we make and the labels we attach to ourselves and others define who we are as human beings.

    I also tried Portnoy's Complaint, and couldn't get through it. I knew going in what the subject-matter was, but nonetheless, it was a bit more than I could tolerate.


Comments are very welcome.