Book Reviews: Christopher Homm (C. H. Sisson)

July 7, 2009 by  

Christopher Homm by C.H. Sisson

Christopher Homm by C.H. Sisson

I like to vary the book reviews on Tales Plainly Told; reviews of new books leavened every now and then with interesting older works.  This week’s book review is of a key work that has been largely forgotten, but fortunately still remains in print.

Christopher Homm was first published in 1965, and it remains one of the best representations of lower-middle class England in the first half of the 20th century.  The author, Charles Hubert Sisson, was a celebrated poet and critic – and a life-long civil servant in the Occupational Safety and Health department.  His life was an expression of the unlikely juncture between art and the mundane world, a challenging combination, but one illuminating Christopher Homm, Sisson’s best-known novel.

The eponymous hero of that novel is “a pattern of amiability when he [falls] flat on the gravel” and expires in the first sentence.  In death, he is revealed as a deception, his very clothes covering the secret shame of the body’s natural imperfections.  His life is chronicled backwards, starting with his death, through his difficult – to put it mildly – relationship with his manipulative wife, and his non-career.  The thread of Christopher Homm’s life is unwound against a backdrop of the grimy existence of the English working class struggling to survive during WWII and its inglorious aftermath.

The unusual and distinctive technique of reverse chronology serves to give the otherwise banal events of Christopher Homm’s life a fated, predestined air.  The book ends with his birth, and in the moment of his birth, it is as though his entire future was sealed.  “If he had known how bitter the journey was to be he would not have come,” we are told at the very beginning of his life.  There is no escaping from suffering, Sisson insists throughout the book.  All relationships are fraught with ignorance at best, hostility at worst, all external manifestations of one’s internal conflict.

One might reasonably think that knowing the end of the story would make it less riveting, but the reverse chronology gives the reader something a conventional narrative cannot: it provides a study of causes.  In ordinary life, it is difficult to see the true cause of an event; who can recall the momentary whim that set in motion a series of events lasting years?  Yet, in rewinding a life, we can see clearly how A led to B, which then led to C, though the events seem unrelated.  Yet, as Sisson demonstrates, the life is ultimately the product of the individual.

In Christopher Homm, character is indeed destiny, and Sisson patiently untangles the skein of fate to reveal the man underneath.