“Once we lived in a summer country,” Evie declares in the first line of “A Children’s Bible.” She is among a group of teenagers — some with younger siblings — assembled through the actions of their parents. The parents were all friends in college, and they’ve collectively rented a large house in the country, where their only activity appears to be the drinking that begins at breakfast and continues late into the evenings. Their behavior inspires the contempt of their children.
“They sat us down and talked about nothing. They aimed their conversation like a dull gray beam. It hit us and lulled us into a stupor. What they said was so boring it filled us with frustration, and after more minutes, rage. Didn’t they know there were urgent subjects? Questions that needed to be asked?”
Unable to command their parents’ attention, the teens opt to set up a separate camping space. Evie’s younger brother, Jack, has run out of books to read and has been given a children’s Bible. Because he has no experience with religion, he reads it like adventure stories. Millet builds the narrative of her clever novel with building materials salvaged from these biblical stories. Plot points and themes are drawn from stories told in both the Old and New Testaments. The chosen teenagers will face a series of challenges in which nature assumes the role of wrathful god while they also struggle to communicate with parents who are partying like it’s 1999.
When a catastrophic storm bears down on the summer house, Evie’s peers perceive the danger. But they’re also aware that their parents seem uninterested in and incapable of meeting the crisis, and the children are forced to implement plans for survival. As Evie observes, her parents’ generation has largely ignored warnings about a variety of impending disasters and assumed that “someone else” would solve the problems.
This hands-off approach has left their children “coming to grips with the end of the world.” Still, “we knew who was responsible, of course: it had been a done deal before we were born.”
Millet skillfully captures the dual tone of her teenaged characters’ voices. Evie’s sardonic observations about the parents range wide and cut deep as she dissects everything from their behavior to their music and clothes. But beneath Evie’s dismissal of the adults is the plaintive cry of the child who wants her parents to take care of her, to do their job of protecting their children from danger and creating a safe world in which the kids can grow up. Instead, her generation has been handed a broken world and told to make do.
Alongside the survival skills Evie has been forced to acquire and which have made her hard, her experiences carve out compassionate spaces. She learns to pay attention to the tiny moments that signify change and which allow her to reach for a new understanding of hope.
Lorraine Berry is a writer in Florida.
A Children’s Bible
By: Lydia Millet.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $25.95.