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Oxygen

by Andrew Miller

Oxygen tells the story of a family in crisis that gather together to be with their mother, Alice, whose death from cancer is imminent.
Alec is a shy, myopic translator who followed in his mother's footsteps pursuing a career in languages. He is translating a play Oxygene by the Hungarian playwright Lazlo Lazar, resident in Paris.
Larry the elder son, the blue-eyed boy, is a mess. His career as a tennis pro over he moved to the US into acting. When his TV soap character is axed he is contemplating moving into porn films to stave off bankruptcy. Booze and drugs aren't doing very much for him either.
The counterpoint to this is Lazlo's story. He is a comfortable, successful playwright living in Paris with a younger boyfriend and surrounded by admiring friends. But memories from Lazlo's past haunt him and when a chance for atonement comes along Lazlo embarks on a mysterious and potentially dangerous mission.
The book shifts between Alice's home in the West Country, California, Paris and Budapest and the story is essentially a philosophical one, looking at the meaning of happiness, mortality, regret and self-fulfilment.
There are some incredibly moving moments and as anyone who has watched a parent die will know there is absolutely nothing that can prepare one for this. It is Alec who is struggling most:
"He knew now, with a certainty that bordered upon relief that he wasn't going to manage. No labour of the intelligence, no artifice or soft voice could help him. Losing Alice would not be difficult, it would be unendurable and something in him would simply not survive it. With the others he would have to go on pretending for a while, but out here there were only bats and stars to see him, and he took ff his glasses, folded them carefully, put his head in his hands, and wept."
Although the themes are difficult Andrew Miller is very skilful in ensuring that the reader is never bogged down by them and this makes it a very accessible read - there are even some laugh out loud funny moments and a couple of clever red herrings.

Oxygen was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001.

Read our interview with Andrew Miller.

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