#OzFeb and #ReadIndies: Romy Ash – Floundering

Romy Ash: Floundering, Text Publishing, 2012.

Text Publishing feels like a big outfit, and they are my go-to publisher when it comes to Australian literary fiction, but it turns out that they are in fact an independent small publisher based in Melbourne. So I am delighted to be able to slot this book into two different reading challenge categories: #ReadIndies (finally!) as promoted by the veteran book bloggers Lizzy and Kaggsy; and my own reading Australia this month personal challenge, which I’ve somewhat irreverently dubbed #OzFeb, two short words for the shortest month of the year.

I didn’t know much about Romy Ash, other than that Floundering, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Prize (again! most of the books I read this month had some link to Miles Franklin). The same book was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and Prime Minister’s literary award in Australia, and it must have been recommended to me by one of my Australian book blogger friends, because she is barely known outside her native country. She seems to be an essayist and short story writer, as well as a regular newspaper columnist, but I cannot find another novel written by her.

Just like another recent Australian novel I read, The Man Who Loved Children, this too is a fictional account of a dysfunctional family, seen through the eyes of one of the long-suffering children who has not fully grasped – or not wanted to admit – the extent of the parental abuse they are suffering. However, Floundering is mercifully much shorter, the father is completely missing and the mother is (criminally) negligent rather than abusive. That doesn’t make it much easier to read in terms of topic, but the style is simpler, pared-down, full of the kind of minute and immediate observations that ring true for an eleven-year-old boy.

Tom and his older brother Jordy have been dumped onto their grandparents by their mother several years ago, but now Loretta is back and wants a fresh start with her boys. They set off in a battered yellow car called Bert, in an American-style road trip to the Western Coast of Australia, with hardly any money or clear sense of purpose. Along the way, they learn to cope with heat, sunburn and sleeping in cramped backseats, shoplift from service stations, be in equal measure embarrassed and entranced by their mercurial mother. When they finally reach their destination, a beat-up caravan in a camping site on the coast, with the nearest source of drinking water a driving distance away, Loretta vanishes once again, and the boys are left at the mercy of interfering or, worse, dodgy neighbours like Nev.

The story itself didn’t feel very new and lost its momentum towards the end, but overall it had me reading compulsively to see if anything bad would happen to the children. There were some memorable, visceral scenes, which worked very well from the child’s point of view, as children tend to be aware of every single physical sensation and discomfort, and perhaps the very murky motivation of the Nev character reflected the confusion of a child wanting to trust an adult but not quite daring to. The grumpy yet protective relationship between the brothers felt very realistic. There was, however, occasional slippage into terminology that was overwrought for an eleven-year-old and the scenes with the dead shark or ‘gummy’, as the boys call it, were nauseating and overlong, belabouring the mistreatment metaphor a little too much.

The book’s title is not just about ‘floundering’ in the sense of thrashing about wildly or flailing either literally or mentally in mud and water, but about the process of catching the fish flounder, which their mother wants to show them. Needless to say, the experience is not as pleasurable as she remembered, but in her obsession to recapture the fun and magic of the past, she seems horribly indifferent to the fact that one of her sons is nearly drowning in the here and now.

Floundering is what some have disparagingly called a ‘misery memoir’, but I would simply call it a novel about a childhood stunted by inadequate parenting and poverty-stricken living conditions. There have always been a number of those, some autobiographical, others more fictional, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of public interest and demand. I have struggled to engage with Angela’s Ashes, A Child Called It or Running with Scissors – but they all contributed to the boom in 2006-8 of this sub-genre teetering at the edge of fiction and true story. There was a lull after that, but we seem to be on a rising tide again, with Douglas Stuart’s fictional Shuggie Bain winning the Booker Prize in 2020, while Kerry Hudson’s Lowborn is at the memoir end of the spectrum. I haven’t read these last two, but the ones I have found particularly moving and subtly written (rather than purely in it for the shock factor) are (the country in brackets is where the events take place, rather than the nationality of the author):

  • Heather O’Neill: Lullabies for Little Criminals (Canada)
  • Janice Galloway: All Made Up (Scotland)
  • Jung Chang: Wild Swans (China)
  • Jason Donald: Choke Chain (South Africa)
  • Hanne Ørstavik: Love (Norway)

#OzFeb, but not quite #ReadIndies: Christina Stead

Christina Stead: The Man Who Loved Children, Capuchin Classics, 2010.

Christina Stead (1902-1983)

I so very nearly had a book for #ReadIndies too, because Capuchin Classics was an independent publisher based in London bringing back or keeping alive forgotten classics. However, they don’t seem to have brought out any books recently or updated their website or Twitter since 2013, so I think they might no longer exist. Alas, such is the fate of far too many small independent publishers, so please support them if you can! The big mammoth publishers have big deals with the chain bookstores and libraries, can afford to pay for promotion at literary festivals or participate in literary prizes, but independents struggle to even be seen by distributors or readers.

But back to Christina Stead, highly respected Australian writer, and her magnum opus, The Man Who Loved Children, which is partly based on her own childhood, although the setting has been (rather unconvincingly at times) transposed to Washington DC for the US publication of the book – and there they remained. The novel was written in 1935 and published in the US in 1940.

It is the portrait of the unravelling of a highly problematic family with six children. Sam Pollit is the self-absorbed and preening scientist and narcisstic and bullying father of the title. Henny is the long-suffering mother, who vents her bitterness and dissatisfaction at her children, her husband, and above all at her step-daughter Louie, Sam’s daughter from the first marriage. Sam uses his children as a shield, confides in them things that he shouldn’t, controls and manipulates them, teases them mercilessly, has developed a secret language with them. They are enchanted by this playful, story-telling figure, who is so much more exciting than their grumpy, self-pitying mother, even when he hurts them.

If you need your characters to be likable, you should definitely not open this book! The warring couple are unbearable and hateful, each in their own way: their quarrels are brutal, nasty and left me as a reader feeling deeply uncomfortable. Personal disclosure here: my own parents were terribly mismatched and fought frequently when I was a child (although their story did not end in tragedy like this one), so it brought back a few traumatic memories.

So that is one reason I struggled with this book. The second was, of course, the way those poor children were treated, although the author presents all this in a matter-of-fact way, as viewed from within the family, so that the full eccentricity or even horror of it only becomes apparent when they receive visitors (for example, when the schoolteacher or a relative comes for dinner). The third reason is that I met leaders of religious cults who behaved in the same apparently charismatic, lovably naive but actually stone-cold manipulative way – and Sam does create a ‘cult’ atmosphere about the Pollits. The fourth reason is that the book is long, chaotic, repetitive, its style deliberately ugly at times. Powerful, yes, but painful to read. For example, here is Henny contemplating the parallels between their rundown house and her marriage:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it, every fold in the curtains had a meaning… every room was a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

Never knowingly simplify a sentence! Make sure you hammer home a certain sentiment by repeating it in every conceivable way! While this works well when uttered by the two main grownup characters, it does feel excessive in third person, especially when it is observed and commented upon by fourteen-year-old Louie. I admire the author’s ability to create such a stifling, horrendous family atmosphere and vile characters, but it proved too relentless for me, and I skim read the last third of the book. I recognised some of the darkness and dysfunctionality that Shirley Jackson also has in her writing, but how much more subtly and succinctly!

Here, for instance, is Sam demonstrating his manipulative misogyny and sneaky ways of winning the children over:

No man could be so cruel, so devilish, as a woman with her weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves, and tears. We mean are all weak as water before the primitive devices of Eve. I was patient at first, many years. You were too young then, Looloo; you did not see how kind I was, hoping for an improvement: constant dropping wears away a stone, and it was only much later that I found out hardness worked better than love. It broke my heart, nearly, to find it out. It would have broken my heart only that I had other interests.

Another speech that was a little too close to personal experience, to how my ex-husband would talk about me when I was clinically depressed. Although Henny irritated me in lots of ways, I could understand her exasperated, violent outbursts and almost cheer her on when she said:

…boasting and blowing about your success when all the time it was me, my poor body, that was what you took our success out of… I’ve stuffed mattresses for you and your children and cooked dinners for the whole gang of filthy, rotten, ignorant, blowing Pollits that I hate. I’ve had the house stinking like a corpse cellar with your formalin… and had to put up with your vile animals and idiotic collections and your blood-and-bone fertilizer in the garden and everlasting talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, boring me, filling my ears with talk, jaw, jaw, till I thought the only way was to kill myself to escape you and your world of big bluffs and big sticks, saving the whole rotten world with your talk.

But for all her big words, she ends up having another child with her husband, and does not find a sensible way out of the whole situation.

It is an extreme and very dark view of the relationship between the sexes, between parents and children. It may be considered a masterpiece of Australian literature or of 20th century literature more widely, but it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.

#20BooksofSummer: No. 14 – The Home-Maker

It’s been nearly a hundred years since The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher was published (1924) and I wish I could say that more had changed in the meantime. Sadly, if the recent (ongoing) pandemic has proved anything, it is that the traditional division of labour within the household is still alive and kicking and gender inequality in the workplace is on the rise again. So this book was radical in its day, but still has a lot to tell us about gender roles and ‘parenting instincts’ in the present day. What is revolutionary about Fisher’s work is that she sees domestic work as undervalued and soul-crushing regardless of who does it:

The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be ‘seen to’ by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential qualities in every one of us.

Eva Knapp is a force of nature, an energetic and driven woman, but she is not a natural mother. Described at some point by her husband as ‘a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden’ or ‘a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture’, she does not find her greatest fulfilment in domestic tasks and childrearing, but feels it’s her duty to do her best for her family. The author shows remarkable insight about subjects which even now seem to be taboo for a mother to admit.

These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you that there were moments of arid clear sight when you saw helplessly that your children would never measure up to your standard, never would be really close to you, because they were not your kind of human beings.

We’ve all been there, Eva love! Needless to say, she cannot admit anything like failure, so doesn’t discuss any of this with anyone. Instead, she sticks rather grimly to her daily tasks, prefering cleaning and cooking rather than actually talking to the children, much like present-day mums driving their children from one after-school activity to another. She fusses over the children’s health and over her youngest’s wayward ways and is heartily dissatisfied with her husband Lester. Nobody in the family is happy but they don’t know or expect any different.

Meanwhile, Lester is a bit of a dreamer and a poet, unhappy with his work in finance in the local department store, not overly ambitious. He feels he is missing out on his children, but doesn’t dare to interfere with Eva’s iron fist rule over the domestic domain.

He never had time to know his children, to stalk and catch that exquisitely elusive bird-of-paradise, their confidence. Lester had long ago given up any hope of having time enough to do other things that seemed worth while, to read the books he liked, to meditate, to try to understand anything. But it did seem that in the matter of his own children… Lester never doubted that his wife loved her children with all the passion of her fiery heart, but there were times when it occurred to him that she did not like them very well – not for long at a time, anyhow.

When he is kicked out of his job, he feels like a complete failure and seriously considers suicide – his last act of love for his family, or so he believes. That way, they could at least get his insurance money; but this is of course not the case if the cause of death is suicide, so he has to make it look like an accident.

Sure enough, an accident occurs (deliberate or not?) and poor Lester is incapacitated, so Eva has to become the main breadwinner. This role reversal suits the family perfectly: Eva has a real talent for business, while the children thrive under Lester’s benign parenting (and considerably lower demands of cleanliness and gourmet cooking). But what will the neighbours think? Is their small town ready for such a revolutionary role swap?

Of course, this book is reflective of its time, in that it doesn’t really offer a creative solution for both partners that is sustainable in the long-term. The couple are still not really talking to each other, although they are each secretly pleased with their new role. They are not really brave enough to break out of the mould just yet. The book is about more than just gender division of labour and this is what makes it feel fresh even today: reminding us to slow down, enjoy what we have and not allow ourselves to be pressured into society’s definition of ‘success’. Having seen so many cases of dual-career couples (in academia, among expats) where the woman has had to give up her career to follow the husband, and finds it difficult to admit even to herself just how bitter and dissatisfied that makes her, I would say the novel still has many many recognisable moments and messages.

You can find more reviews of The Home-Maker from Vishy, the Captive Reader, and Juliana Brina. It was reissued by Persephone eight years or so ago, and has become one of its most popular titles, but I’ve come late to it.

What Is Love? #AsymptoteBookClub No. 3

Hanne Ørstavik: Love, transl. Martin Aitken

A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.

It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.

Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.

I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.

I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Love by Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.

Domestic Bliss

I take out the bin for pocket-money. It’s only 10p, she tells me it’s all she can afford. We both hold onto the washing machine for its spin-cycle rock’n’roll. Unhung pictures have collected weeks’ worth of dust, but we vacuum – now and then – and she scrubs. She’s taught herself to program thermostats, heating, even TV, but parental locks are beyond her. So my brother chats inappropriately with Tibetan monks and louche gamesters in France late into the night. She leaves the room quickly when the Skype jingle heralds another call from our dad. She tells us she is learning so much new stuff, foists recipes upon us too exotic for our tastes. Luckily, every two weeks we relax for a couple of days with Dad’s frozen pizzas or chicken nuggets galore.

Doorbell dings. ‘We’ve noticed your patio could do with some cleaning – we kill weeds, pressure wash, spray and all.’ I don’t know why she shakes her head smiling feebly, nor why she leans quite so closely on the door she slams behind them.

Overgrown, from bbc.com

My scabs grow new scabs –

each layer a way

to pave my path out of hell

into good intentions but

I scratch till fresh bleed.

 

 

Children and Parents in Literature

Sometimes it’s serendipity and sometimes it’s your subconscious deliberately selecting books which speak to your innermost needs and fears. I’m going through a bout of reading about mothers and children (occasionally fathers are involved too, but it’s mostly mothers and sons I’ve been eavesdropping on). Fiction has always provided me with more inspiration than any number of self-help books.

monstercallsPatrick Ness: A Monster Calls

The sinister black and white illustrations by Kay perfectly match this story about a 13-year-old boy whose mother is dying. Conor’s deadpan refusal to be impressed or frightened by the monster is realistic and brings a note of fierce humour in what could otherwise be a very bleak story about denial, anger and ultimately acceptance of loss. As for that final dialogue between Conor and his mother – oh, my! I borrowed it from the library with the intention of giving it to my children to read, but after emerging from it a tear-stricken mess, I decided better not. Not just now.

mountainshoeLouise Beech: The Mountain in My Shoe

A chilling tale of parental neglect and the difficulties of navigating the social care system, seen through the eyes of a young boy (also called Conor, incidentally). The ‘lifebook’ is an inspired method for conveying all the different stories and voices present in Conor’s life, and the quite dry factual content of many of the entries merely make the sadness all the more palpable, while avoiding sentimentality. The title of the book comes from a statement that the little boy makes around the Muhammad Ali quote: ‘It’s not the mountains ahead which wear you out, it’s the pebble in your shoe’ – and Conor has a whole mountain in his shoe. Luckily, there is also much love in the boy’s life through the three mother figures, although they don’t always know how to express it.

clevergirlTessa Hadley: Clever Girl

An example of Tessa Hadley’s subtle humour, choosing a title like Clever Girl and then proceeding to show us how her main protagonist, Stella, demonstrates a lack of ‘cleverness’ by making what many might perceive as the ‘wrong choices’ and ending up with quite a difficult life as a result of it. Yet, as the story progresses and Stella’s two sons grow up, we realise that perhaps we need to rethink our definition of ‘clever’, as she ultimately succeeds in raising happy and reasonably well-adjusted children, and achieves some sort of contentment herself. Of course, there is also the slightly patronising tone of ‘clever girl’, which you might utter to a dog performing tricks… A writer who is simply masterly at elevating the mundane detail and making it appear full of significance, while also providing a great insight into character.

promessaubeRomain Gary: La promesse de l’aube (Promise at Dawn)

I will do a more detailed review of this book in another post, as it has been every bit as wonderful as Emma promised. For now, let me just say that I adored this mother but would dread to become like her. Not quite a memoir (although autobiographical, it has been fictionally heightened in parts for the utmost effect), it is largely the story of Romain’s arrival in France as a refugee with his mother. Above all, it is about motherly love and self-sacrifice, about her unbridled belief in her son’s glorious future, and that son’s attempts not to let her down. In this book, Gary pays tribute to a larger-than-life character who pushed him to so many achievements later in life. It is beautifully written – tender, passionate, like an informal conversation with a friend, very poignant at times, and also very funny and self-deprecating.

To this set of imperfect, absolutely human mothers, now also add the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, in which a mother can no longer cope with her ‘difficult’ child, and the effect this has on the entire family. I just watched that on Saturday with my own children and what do you get? ‘No, I’m NOT crying, I just have to blow my nose because I have a cold, all right?’

Liane Moriarty: Big Little Lies

I’m a latecomer to the charms of Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s slick, compelling novels. Winner of the 2015 Davitt Award for Australian crime fiction for adults, Big Little Lies was originally published as just Little Lies in the UK, just to confuse matters further. I saw it being highly praised by bloggers I trust, like Cleo, That’s What She Read  , TripFiction, Elena and on the Shiny New Books site. Margot even featured Big Little Lies in her ‘In the Spotlight’ series, which gave me the final push to pick it up at the local library.

big-little-lies-liane-moriartyIt is perfect for parents everywhere, although the Australian setting gives it an extra twist. [No hedge fund manager parent in Britain would have sent their child to the local state school.] Anyone who’s taken a child to school in recent years will laugh or wince in recognition: the author packs in so many cringeworthy moments – the yummy mummies and their gossip, the PTA power, the party invitations being handed out in the playground, the petitions going round the school, the overwhelmed teachers and principals. It’s perfect book club fodder: there’s even a book club featured in its pages! And I love the expression: ‘Oh, calamity!’

Yet underneath the humour and instantly recognisable ‘types of parents’, there is real drama, tragedy and moments of subtle psychological insight. I detected a certain similarity in style with fellow Australian Helen Fitzgerald: fearless, candid, humorous but underlying seriousness. In this book it’s all about bullying and lying (to one’s self and to others), about maintaining a façade when your heart is breaking, about the everyday worries so many of us experience and yet we have to carry on. The characterisation is pitch-perfect. I could perhaps relate to the warm-hearted but sometimes terribly interfering and loud Madeline slightly more than to her two friends, shy Jane and inexplicably vague golden girl Celeste, but I enjoyed reading from each character’s point of view and even secondary characters revealed unexpected depths.

The most memorable recent books I’ve read which fit into this category are: Claire Mackintosh’s I See You, Sabine Durrant’s Lie With Me, Tammy Cohen’s When She Was Bad. They rely not so much on plot twists and gradual reveal (although they all have them), but on the ‘chattiness factor’. I have a theory about why books such as these are so popular. I call them ‘chat crime’ (to coin a new phrase) and they straddle comfortably genres such as chick lit and psychological thriller. They are the comfort food of crime fiction:  enough suspense and mystery to keep you turning the pages, but also recognisable situations galore, characters in predicaments which you can relate to. Easy, smooth style, slides down the reading throat a treat, and very moreish. You feel you could read another one like it in quick succession. I also wonder what percentage of readers of psychological thrillers are women between the ages of 26 and 46 of a certain level of education and affluence, who will recognise themselves very easily in these pages. It feels like the stories we all tell each other when we get together on a ‘Mums’ night out’.

Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.
Pirriwee Beach is fictional, but Palm Beach in New South Wales comes pretty close to what I imagine it to be like.

I am by no means belittling this kind of crime fiction. I enjoyed it immensely (and cried a little at the tales of Madeline’s woes with Abigail, her teenage daughter from her previous marriage) and read it in just one day. And we all know that the prose which feels most ‘natural’ and ‘unworked upon’ is the hardest to write! I’m just aware that I need to alternate this kind of reading with other, more challenging literature (written from points of view which are less familiar to me). Otherwise it’s just too easy to get trapped in your protected little bubble, like the parents of Pirriwee Public School.

I hear the book is being filmed as a TV mini-series, featuring Nicole Kidman as the statuesque Celeste, Shailene Woodley as fearful Jane and Reese Witherspoon as feisty Madeline.

 

Haibun Monday: Water Image Prompt

It’s Haibun Monday at dVerse Poets’ Pub and this time Mary is asking us to use an image prompt. I’ve rewritten an earlier piece of flash fiction as a haibun (so I’m not sure it fits the description) – and I’m afraid it may be a little longer than ideal.

Boy sailing his boat on pond near the Louvre, photo by Mary Kling.
Boy sailing his boat on pond near the Louvre, photo by Mary Kling.

We reach the park. It doesn’t take long for Mum to get bored: ‘Enough of swings!  I’m tired.  Run off, do something!’

It’s cold and windy.  The monkey-bars are icy, there are too many children on the merry-go-round. I push the boat forlornly, just a little further out, to amuse my baby brother. Our remote has long since run out of batteries and nobody remembers to replace them. The boat shudders lop-sidedly and capsizes.

My brother’s lower lip starts quivering. I show Mum the wet bundle that was once our boat, hoping her longer arms will be able to retrieve it with the stick. But her eyes are elsewhere.

‘Go run around the pool!’ she says, ‘You’ll soon warm up!’

‘Don’t wanna!’

Mum rolls her eyes. ‘First of all, it’s “I don’t want”, not “don’t wanna”.  Secondly, tell me clearly what don’t you want?  Can’t help you if you don’t talk to me properly!  When will you learn to express your thoughts instead of just crying and whingeing all the time?  Waa, waa!  Is that all you guys ever do?’

She’s off again.  No one can say Mum is stuck for words.  Press a button, and she goes on forever.  I have my pocket remote – one that works without batteries – and zap off her sound like on telly.  Only let a few words slip through, just to make sure she isn’t suddenly saying something important, like lunch or time to go home.  But no, it’s the usual stuff…  How could she have given birth to such lazy children?…  Sports are so good for you – unhealthy, stuck indoors all the time – only interested in Xbox… Nobody will be our friend if we behave like this… A burden on her, what has she done to deserve this…

I’ll have to get it myself. I sit on the stone edge of the pond, lean forward waving the stick like a light sabre. My theory is that if the Force is with me, little rays of it will make waves and bring the boat back to me. It nearly works, but I have to dip my hands into the water quite a bit to grab the sail. My fingers are icy around my catch. I hand it over hurriedly to Jake.

Mum folds her arms and sits, muttering, on the bench.  Jake stands stiffly beside her, the boat clutched to his chest and dripping all over his shoes. Face all screwed up and snotty.  Refusing to have fun.  I shrug and start playing Star Wars.  I always play this on my own – no one else, not even Jake, may join in. I’m a clone trooper, fighting enemies with my light sabre.  I run around with sound effects. Mum hates this game.  She says only Jedi knights have light sabres and clone troopers are stupid. But I want to be stupid, I want to look like everyone else.  All Mum’s brains, all those college scarves in her sock drawer that we’re not allowed to touch… and she has to go to hospital every month. Feels sick like a slug afterwards.

Besides, Jedi knights are boring, like grown-ups: they talk too much, they’re always right, always winning.  Light sabres should belong to everybody. And boats should never be allowed to sink.

Fingers ice over:
Who sees beauty in hoar frost
when hearts need warming?

 

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 Québécois writers. This book reminded me of Sophie Divry, Virginie Despentes,  Alice Quinn or Jeanne Desaubry, but Québécois writers such as Nelly Arcan and Gabrielle Roy have also presented stark, realistic portrayals of working-class lives.

Review: No Other Darkness by Sarah Hilary

nootherdarknessSarah Hilary has a talent for revisiting a topical theme and making something very unexpected out of it. In her debut crime fiction novel Someone Else’s Skin, it was about domestic violence. In this book it is about parenting and child protection. Let me be perfectly honest: this is not an easy book to read as a parent of young children. I had to put it aside at certain moments, to regain my composure.

DI Marnie Rome faces that most disturbing of cases: two dead children, buried for several years in an abandoned bunker, with a new development built on top. There are no clues to help identify the children – no one of similar age was reported missing in the area five years ago. How can a child simply fall through the cracks of the social system?

This is a solid police procedural, as well as a tense psychological thriller, so there is a lot of steady legwork and realistic step-by-step detecting involved. However, is Marnie allowing her own experience of foster siblings to colour her judgement of the family who lives in the house on the site where the bodies were found? We have a limited cast of characters (and suspects) and a fairly well-defined geographical location, which all add to the claustrophobia of the story.

You can imagine the emotional effect on me of the opening chapter describing the two little boys imprisoned in what will become their underground tomb, gradually realising that no one is coming to rescue them. I had a lump in my throat. This is writing which really pulls at your heartstrings, without sentimentality or cheap gimmicks. There have been recent debates about crime fiction focusing too much on graphic violence and sensationalism, to the detriment of compassion, but this book is full of deep caring for the victims and the people around them.

Bunker
Swiss bunker, from Inhabitat.com

There are some other intriguing elements here as well, such as the ‘preppers’ (people who believe in impeding apocalypse and therefore prepare themselves for it by sheltering in underground bunkers). I knew these people existed in the US, but was not aware they had arrived on British shores too. Of course, they would probably do best in Switzerland, where (by law) ‘every inhabitant must have a protected place (a bunker) that can be reached quickly from his place of residence”.

Well-written, well-observed, never simplistic or obvious, this is a strong follow-up from a writer I will certainly be keeping an eye on.