Samantha Harvey | "I don't wish to write endlessly obscure novels, but I don't want to fashion myself to a market."

Samantha Harvey is a writer who very determinedly ploughs her own furrow. Her first novel, The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape), was a distinctive, bold and moving story of the descent of a man into Alzheimer's—with the narrator a sufferer himself, relating his failing relationship with memory and language.  

The book's success—it was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Guardian First Book Award and has sold a highly creditable 24,000 copies through Nielsen Bookscan—has, Harvey says, given her some licence for her follow-up.

She calls All is Song (Jonathan Cape, January 2012) a "gamble": a novel which may not appeal to the wider readership pulled in by her début, but one she has wanted to write for the past 15 years. "I kept feeling the impulse to put something more marketable in it, then decided: ‘No, I am going to stick to my guns.' "

The underlying premise of the novel is not immediately obvious as you read it. All is Song is narrated by a middle-aged man, Leonard—whose father has recently died—and who has just split up from his girlfriend, whose flat he moves out of to live with his brother William, a married father of three.

Changing rooms

The move is not an entirely comfortable one, because William is a profoundly unconventional man: endlessly questioning of moral norms most of us take as certainties, and acting in ways which are often puzzling, William is an enigma. Although gentle and loving, he doesn't appear to live by any of the usual rules of family life—for example, neglecting to visit or care for his dying father in his last months. He is prone to occasional trance states where his attention wanders, and in the past he has been suspected of mental illness.

William is also surrounded by a coterie of young people eager to learn from him. But the influence of his teachings is open to question and when one of his young followers burns down a local library, William comes under police scrutiny.

Those familiar with the classical world may come to recognise widespread echoes of the life and death of the philosopher Socrates, who was eventually forced to drink hemlock after incurring the wrath of the state through his relentless questions.  

Harvey—who studied Philosophy as an undergraduate—says she has wanted to write a novel on this theme for 15 years. Socrates "really got under her skin", she says, as a man who "wouldn't settle for assumption and ignorance", and she became intrigued by the idea of what might happen to him if he were alive today. "How would he be in the world, how would he be received?'," she says. "What happens to the person who continually probes and questions and won't let anything settle? Are we any more receptive now?"

But, she says, as she wrote it, the novel took on a different colour, becoming increasingly domestic in scope and concerned with the relationship between Leonard and his inscrutable brother. We see William through Leonard's eyes, and while Leonard loves William, he is also frustrated by him, envying his charisma but baffled by a man who can try to trace a moral equivalence between his child's tantrum and the act of genocide. "The very act of even looking at his brother was one of reconciliation between these two opposite views of love and frustration, love and anger, and most often, love and incomprehension," Harvey writes.

Domestic demeanours

Whether you know—or care—about Socrates or not, many readers will respond to the novel on this familial level. "It's very true that with your family members you may love them deeply and yet they may not give you enough reason to love them deeply," observes Harvey. "You want them to present you with a reason to attach love to them, but they don't necessarily do that. In that respect the dynamic between the brothers became increasingly important to me. It gave the novel heart and soul."

Harvey's two novels to date both have older male narrators. She says she has vowed to herself that the next will be related by a woman, putting the choice down to "writerly nervousness", an anxiety about her ability to create a voice if the protagonist's identity is closer to her own.

But compromising her choice of subject matter is not an option, she says. "This is probably a more difficult novel [than The Wilderness]," she says. "I know it's a risk and it may have a very small readership, but I'm prepared to take a gamble on it. I really just write about what is meaningful to me and trust it will find a readership. I don't wish to write endlessly obscure novels, but I don't want to fashion myself to a market.

"Ultimately if you can write well enough you create your own market."