Unusual Books about Unhappy Childhood

Once again, by complete coincidence, my reading seems to have followed a pattern: powerful and often unhappy childhood memories which have cast long shadows onto the protagonists’ later lives. I generally avoid ‘misery memoirs’, as they feel almost voyeuristic to me, but these books each have a more unusual perspective on traumatic pasts.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

Midwinter is the time of year when the book takes place, but it is also the name of the father and son duo at the heart of this book. It is also about the icy coldness and lack of communication which seems to exist between the two. Landyn and Vale Midwinter are hardy and dour Suffolk farmers. Ten years ago Landyn had tried to save the family from financial ruin by moving them to a farm in Zambia. During their time there, his wife (Vale’s mother) was killed and the two returned home but have never fully come to grips with the tragedy. Vale starts to act up, with stupid and tragic consequences, but his father is unable to talk to him about it, in this fierce indictment  of the ‘stiff upper lip’ or manliness which refuses to talk about pain and grief. Meanwhile, Landyn is fascinated by a fox he sees in the neighbourhood, whom he associates with his dead wife. This is very reminiscent of the Japanese folk tales about kitsune, fox spirits, who shape shift into human form, and are typically the guardians and protectors of the family, as long as you do not try to delve too deeply into their secrets.

This is a slow, atmospheric read, designed to capture a farmer’s fierce love of the land and its creatures. There are some beautiful descriptive passages and sentences, polished like gemstones, but I can see how the overall effect could strike some readers as overloaded and cumbersome. I was enchanted by the book, despite its occasional repetitions. There is a timeless quality to it, you feel it could have taken place at any time over the past 100 years or so. Although very rooted in its local area, it reminded me in many ways of Michelle Bailat Jones’ Fog Island Mountainsright down to the fox spirit, the complex husband/wife dynamic, the difficulty in communicating with the next generation, the loving respect and careful observation of nature.

For additional, longer reviews of Midwinter, see Savidge Reads, Lonesome Reader and Alba in Bookland.

Edouard Louis: The End of Eddy (transl. Michael Lucey)

Undeniably grim and yet no worse than other ‘misery memoirs’ about neglected/abused children or real stories I’ve heard about growing up gay in Eastern Europe or the Middle East. The shocking thing is that it’s not taking place in the 1950s or in some developing country, but in France in the 1990s, early 2000s. The contradictory nature of his parents, the equal amounts of disdain for politics and yet yearning for authority that they display is perhaps the best description of the background of many Le Pen voters. Yet I have to agree with Emma that this feels like a very one-sided description of his childhood, that there must have been teachers and school authorities involved in helping him leave that miserable life behind. Nevertheless, it’s a more measured, dry, objective way of describing traumatic events than in some American memoirs of this type.

There were some fascinating similarities and differences with the film ‘Moonlight’, which also shows a perspective on what it means to grow up as a ‘double outsider’ in society, a perspective which is not often given a voice. Both show how violence (gun crime in the American perspective, brawling and fighting in the French perspective) is fetishised as ‘proof of manliness’. This book is as violent an indictment of working class values and prejudices, as Hervé Bazin’s Viper in the Fist is of Catholic rural bourgeois values.

For more thoughts on The End of Eddy, see Grant , Lonesome Reader and of course Emma’s outstanding review, which gives you the view from France (about the name Eddy Bellegueule, for instance).

Heather O’Neill: The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Suffolk, Zambia, Picardy and now Quebec: proof that childhood unhappiness, abuse and neglect can be universal. Unlike the more contemporary novels above, O’Neill’s story takes us back to the 1920s/1930s, with this tale of two orphans, Pierrot and Rose, who find temporary comfort and escape in each other and the magical world they create with their music, dance and entertainment.

A strange, unsettling, provocative tale, with moments of magical flights of fancy and the language of legends applied to the very grim and unvarnished reality of the Great Depression and trying to lighten the mood of this bleak story. I am still not quite sure what to think of it, as it seems to be rather uneven or a novel of parts. Initially the style seemed almost too plain and bare (describing the rape of a minor), then it became increasingly ornate, even baroque at times. I was enchanted by it in parts, repelled in others – which is what I think the author intended. I expected the story to end when Pierrot and Rose finally find each other again as grown-ups, but this is a book about the desire to escape into fairy-tale, not a fairy-tale as such, so it doesn’t end on a happily ever after.

Heather O’Neill is a poet of a writer who can seem to play around with words, always intriguing me but also punching me hard in the stomach. Despite the wistful waltzing around with imaginary bears, make no mistake: this book is just as hard-hitting as Lullabies for Little Criminals. But don’t believe the marketing hype – it has very little in common with The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, except that it defies easy categorisation.

It’s difficult to review this book coherently, but others have succeeded much better than me: Steph, the Literary Llama, Naomi Frisby.


33 thoughts on “Unusual Books about Unhappy Childhood”

  1. I’m always fascinated by books which nudge at the interface between childhood and adulthood, and where a child viewfinder might be part of the book’s journey. Perhaps its because I am clear about a point in my own childhood where I crossed into seeing the world from an adult perspective, and though I continued in child view for longer, was aware of that other country, and that there were distinct ways of seeing.

    Your first and last choices seem to wave enticingly at me!

    1. Ah, fascinating that you remember that point so clearly – I feel like mine was a more gradual drift with no clear or sudden change of view.
      I am going to need some lighter after all of these…

  2. Lonely Hearts is certainly a strange book. It was probably one of the hardest books I have ever read for review. I think that your review says everything I struggled to say.

    1. I liked your comment that it resembles a technicolor fantasy – in some ways, there were elements of La La Land (added to a much darker story) or Moulin Rouge or over-the-top kind of storytelling of that nature.

  3. These all sound like really uncompromising looks at the impact of an unhappy childhood, Marina Sofia. And it’s interesting that they all take place in different parts of the world. Shows you that certain experiences echo in a lot of different places.

    1. I also liked the fact that each response to childhood trauma was different: escape into fantasy (including drug-taking), retreat into silence and daredevil behaviour, feelings of shame fuelling one’s ambition to leave the past behind.

  4. Interesting post – and I think there’s a difference between working out your demons in literature as a way to deal with your past and just exploiting it in a badly written book in an attempt to make money…. A bit harsh, maybe, but I avoid the misery memoirs too – these sound like a whole different ballgame.

    1. Yes, misery memoirs were the ‘Girl Who…’ domestic noirish bandwagon of their time, weren’t they? So quite a few jumped on it – or were marketed as such by publishers. I also think the therapeutic value of writing about it is not to be sniffed at, but it makes me feel guilty to take a peek somehow.

  5. If the two others were as grim as En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule, it must have been a sad ride.
    Thanks for the link to my billet

    1. Grim but with different outcomes – and perhaps even a slightly upbeat message at the end of Midwinter. And thank you for a very thought-provoking review of Eddy!

  6. My head’s not in the right place for these books at the moment (I need comfort reads right now), but they do sound interesting in different ways. Midwinter is the one that appeals the most, particularly the slow-burner quality you’ve highlighted in your closing comments.

    1. Yes, what was I thinking of getting these books when I need comfort reading as well?! If and when you do get a chance to read Midwinter, I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  7. I couldn’t get on with Lonely Hearts Hotel at all, and thought Midwinter was fine but not particularly engaging. The End of Eddy, however, has been doing incredibly well at the bookshop (I met him when he came in to sign! He’s lovely) and I think, curiously, I find it more instinctively appealing than the other two.

    1. I think the reason I quite connected with Midwinter is that I have quite a few farmers in my background, so I could really relate to all of that. So you met Eddy/Edouard – lucky you! It sounds like he’s done really well, must have been very clever and talented to get so far.

  8. Great reviews Marina Sofia. I think I will like Midwinter. I like the idea of fox spirits.And an atmospheric read too? That sounds good.

    Thanks for the heads up on The Lonely Hearts hotel. I keep seeing everywhere that it is like the Night circus.

  9. I’m reading Lonely Hearts right now, and it’s definitely sad. But there’s something about the way it’s written that keeps me from feeling *too* sad. Did you find that, too?

  10. Like you I was enchanted with Midwinter… initially I listened to it via Audible but since bought a copy to reread and both relish the storytelling again but also examine her wonderful imagery which reminded me of Harry’s use of landscape. Must get round to The Lonely Hearts Hotel soon… so many books! X

      1. Ah, that makes more sense… I was about to pick up the book again to see who on earth Harry was… (I’m sure Laurel Hardy was a nature lover as well!) Melrose reminded me very strongly of Romanian authors of the early 20th century, when ‘peasant’ novels were all the rage (and peasant revolts).

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