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 Mountains,¬†right 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 Herv√© 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.

 

October Reading Round-Up and Picks of the Month

Strange month of business trips, sleepless nights, work deadlines – all of which tend to spur me on to greater reading heights (anything to avoid having to deal with work). But this time I read rather less than in previous months. As for the writing – forget it, I don’t think I’ve written anything new since the 10th of August.

Back to reading, however. 9 books, of which 7 by men (to counterbalance the feminine July and August). 5 crime novels (arguably, Richard Beard’s biblical thriller could have fit into this category as well), plus one very unusual read out of my comfort zone – namely, a YA dystopian fantasy novel. I even managed to reread one book, an old favourite of mine, Jean Rhys. 3 of the books were translations or in another language. Finally, my trip to Canada did bear fruit, as I read two Canadian writers this month.

Crime fiction:

Gunnar Staalesen: We Shall Inherit the Wind

John Harvey: Cold in Hand

Jeremie Guez: Eyes Full of Empty (to be reviewed on CFL, together with an interview with the author)

Bernard Minier: The Circle (Le Cercle)

Alan Bradley: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (to be reviewed on CFL)

YA fantasy:

wastelandersNicholas Grey: The Wastelanders

Since this is not my usual reading material, I lack the context and the comparisons to be able to say: this is good or this could have been better. I enjoyed the storytelling ability of the author, and it ends on a cliff-hanger, being the first in a trilogy. I believe it is in the Hunger Games mould, featuring children struggling to survive in a ruthless post-apocalyptic society headed by a dictator and inciting them to fight against the ‘monstrous outsiders’. An allegory of ‘otherness’ and abuse of power,¬†written in an accessible, exciting style which is sure to appeal to boys aged 11-14.

Unclassifiable:

Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

Women writers:

Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals

mackenzieJean Rhys: After Leaving Mr Mackenzie.

Here’s what I said about it on Goodreads:

I was attracted to its darkness and nihilism as a teenager, but now I can appreciate its understated drama and writing style more. A small masterpiece of descent into hopelessness from which all the current ‘middle-aged woman in a life crisis’ books could benefit.

And here’s an extract which should give you a flavour:

It was the darkness that got you. It was heavy darkness, greasy and compelling. It made walls round you, and shut you in so that you felt you could not breathe. You wanted to beat at the darkness and shriek to be let out. And after a while you got used to it. Of course. And then you stopped believing that there was anything else anywhere.

I want to write a longer feature about Jean Rhys at some point, as she is one of my favourite writers – you know me and my love for the gloomy! I also feel she is still somewhat underrated. I’ve also discovered there are two Jean Rhys biographies to discover (although so much is unknown about her life).

I enjoyed 5 out of my 9 reads very much indeed, and the rest were quite good as well, although I had certain reservations about a couple (as I mentioned in a previous post). My Crime Fiction Pick of the Month is John Harvey’s Cold in Hand, for its unsentimental, fearless yet very moving description of grief. But my top reads are actually the two books by the women writers, both very gripping, realistic and disturbing reads about those living on the edge of what society deems to be ‘nice’ and ‘acceptable’.

 

 

The Powers and Perils of Life on the Street

lullabiesThere may be a Friday Fun picture post later on today, but for the time being here is a book review. During the last few days of my business travels, I have been entranced and slightly horrified by the book I picked up in Montreal: Heather O’Neill’s¬†Lullabies for Little Criminals.

It tells the story of terrible events in the life of an imaginative but neglected twelve-year-old girl called Baby.

If I’d had parents who were adults, I probably would never have been called Baby… I loved how people got confused when Jules and I had to explain how it wasn’t just a nickname. It was an ironic name. It didn’t mean you were innocent at all. It meant you were cool and gorgeous. I was only a kid but I was looking forward to being a lady with that name.

Her father Jules is still in his twenties and a bit of a junkie, drifting from one hopeless money-making venture to another, one grotty hotel to another, in the red-light district of Montreal. Based on the examples of the adults around her (her hopeless father Jules, the pimp Alphonse, the drunks and drug dealers in the neighbourhood), Baby finds adulthood a boring, disgusting and often pitiful state of being that she is in no hurry to join, although circumstances seem to conspire to get her there too early.

The adult world was filled with perverts, so it hardly seemed like something worth preparing for.

Montreal
Montreal skyline

This is really the story of successive betrayals, large and small, by all the people around her, how the social care system fails her, but also of the small stolen moments of joy and the fragile friendships that are still possible. It is also the best description of the deliberate targeting and love-bombing of vulnerable young girls by pimps and how children realise that it’s only adults who have any power. Baby remains upbeat for most of the book, no matter how many things the author throws at her. She is non-judgemental and without a trace of self-pity. She sees people around her turning tricks and dealing drugs, she makes friends with outsiders and losers, and she finally descends into a morass of drug-fuelled frenzy.

Sometimes the description can get a little overwrought and the piling on of bad things can get repetitive:

We were addicted to kissing each other. We would kiss in shock, as if we had two buckets of water dumped on our heads. We would kiss sadly, as if the dog was lost in the night, We would kiss like cockroaches headed for the cracks… We stood there like hens pecking grains off the ground…

On the whole, however, the author manages to navigate the tricky path of rendering the unsentimental, clear voice of a child, although there are some odd moments of knowingness (and a hint that this is the grown-up remembering the child’s feelings at the time). Perhaps the innocence and good intentions of Baby do sound a little contrived initially. There is also perhaps too much impenetrable detachment later on in the book. Yet readers will be able to relate to her desire to be loved and her growing feelings of powerlessness, her despair at not being able to rely on anyone, not even her guardian angel.

Initially an honours roll student, Baby ends up neglecting school and finds refuge from an off-kilter, cruel world in heroin. As such, it is perhaps a Canadian version of Trainspotting or Christiane F.

I never thought I would end up doing heroin. I don’t think I did it because of Jules. I think we both did it for the same reason, though: because we were both fools who were too fragile to be sad, and because no one was prepared to give us a good enough reason not to do it.

Author photo from cbc.ca
Author photo from cbc.ca

With its sensitive descriptions of the competitiveness but also solidarity of deprived children of all backgrounds, I was not surprised to find out that there are autobiographical elements to this story. The survival of children in a world of inadequate parenting is described by the author thus:

An unwanted child is a bogeyman to its relatives… but a hero on the streets. Being neglected, you have a lot of freedom to develop outlandish, eccentric personalities in order to get love.

Even if I only spent a few days in Montreal, it was rather nice to recognise some place names and be able to place the action.¬†I seem to have been reading a number of books about what the Americans like to call ‘white trash’ – the poor (but not ethnically diverse) on the fringes of society – but not by American authors. French women authors seem to be particularly good at this, and I wonder if there is a mutual influence going on there with Qu√©b√©cois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes,¬†¬†Alice Quinn¬†or Jeanne Desaubry, but Qu√©b√©cois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.