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.

 

Three British Crime Novels in a Row

This doesn’t often happen to me, but over the past 10 days I’ve read three British authors in a row (albeit with English, Welsh and Scottish roots, so a good attempt at some¬†diversity). This is what comes of letting¬†my children choose the next book for me to read on the tablet! They go by titles alone and, being at that zombie-loving age, of course they wanted something hinting at death or goriness. So I’ve read: Where the Dead Men Go, Someone Else’s Skin and Talking to the Dead.

Image from pcadvisor.com
Image from pcadvisor.com

Each excellent in its own way (never let it be said my boys don’t have good taste!)

It struck me that the first is very macho and masculine (gangland Glasgow, after all), the second is feminine (whatever that means; in this case it addresses issues such as domestic abuse and features a female lead detective), while the third is ambidextrous (written by a man, featuring a female detective… but one who displays very few traits which we might have been conditioned to label feminine).

LiamMcIlvanneyLiam McIlvanney: Where the Dead Men Go

It’s hard to make your mark in the Scottish crime writing landscape, crowded as it is with giants such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Denise Mina and William McIlvanney. The last of these is the father of Liam, so it is hard not to compare the two, especially since they both deal with gangs, tough guys and drugs in Glasgow. Yet the younger McIlvanney makes his own mark with this very topical, thrilling view of a Scotland on the brink of independence, getting ready to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014, and a newspaper industry on its last dying gasp. Reporter Gerry Conway is a lovely creation: morbidly curious, dogged in the pursuit of truth, yet also a loving and very involved father. When Gerry’s younger colleague goes missing and is later found dead, he’s left wondering just how shallow Glasgow’s veneer of modern respectability is. This is taut, muscular writing – not as philosophical or lyrical as McIlvanney P√®re, perhaps, but as dark and addictive as very strong coffee.

SarahHilarySarah Hilary: Someone Else’s Skin

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has read Sarah Hilary’s shorter fiction: she really can write, but this accomplished debut novel proves that she is a long-distance runner as well as a sprinter. This novel skillfully handles a disturbing topic (domestic violence), and introduces a resourceful if rather troubled lead investigator, Marnie Rome. Her own parents were stabbed to death by their foster son five years earlier, so she has traumatic flashbacks when she witnesses a knife-attack at a women’s shelter. However, she¬†is a successful, no-nonsense DI and swiftly gets down to business to get a reliable account of what happened from the other women at the shelter. ¬†Meanwhile, she is also trying to convince a young Asian girl to give evidence against her brothers, who nearly succeeded in blinding her with bleach.

It’s a fast-moving plot, with plenty of unexpected twists to keep you on your toes, but where the story really comes alive for me is in its depiction of hidden suffering. How we can never really know what lies beneath the apparently calm surface of a house, a marriage, a family. How we can never really put ourselves into someone else’s skin. And how most of the women at the shelter where Marnie and her team conduct their investigation would ideally like to be somebody else, start a new life, but are not sure how.

TalkingtotheDeadHarry Bingham: Talking to the Dead

The first in the Fiona Griffiths series, introducing a very unusual, highly intelligent but socially not at all well-functioning heroine. (We later find out she suffers from an unusual form of post-traumatic stress disorder called Cotard’s Syndrome, but this is only hinted at in this book.) The crime itself and the investigation that follows are solid enough (and the child victim whose head is crushed by a Belfast sink is very affecting), but there is a feeling of¬†d√©j√† vu about the plot. ¬†The final revelations about Fiona’s past did not catch me entirely by surprise, either, but the big plus of this book is the heroine herself.¬†The author is onto a winner with her: she reminds me in so many ways of Saga Nor√©n, ¬†the ever so possibly autistic Swedish investigator in the recent series ‘The Bridge’. Despite her yearning to belong to ‘Planet Normal’, Fi is¬†eccentric,¬†rebellious, has a problem following orders and cannot really understand other people’s feelings (or her own). She does get herself into some very dangerous situations, almost implausibly so, but it all makes sense to her at the time. I am stunned at how well a sane male forty-something author can enter the mind of a young disturbed woman.

I also liked the secondary characters: Fi’s parents, her colleagues, her potential love interest, and the indomitable Lev (surely Ukrainian?). ¬†I will certainly be reading more in this series simply to see what Fi does next.