Book Review: The Wacky Man


The Wacky Man, by Lyn G. Farrell, recounts in painful, vivid detail the childhood of Amanda, whose vicious father took out his anger and frustrations on his children with a cruelty it is hard to comprehend. The story opens with Amanda talking to her ‘new shrink’, trying to piece together the fractured memories of her past. It is a past filled with fear, yet the bruises she carried were as nothing compared to the emotional damage endured. The beatings she suffered hurt from the outside in. The barrage of words which bombarded her both at home and at school cut from the inside where they festered, damaging the goodness that should have been nurtured.

Amanda’s father, Seamus, came from Ireland where he had a large and sprawling family, many of whom never accepted his English wife, Barbara. He worked in a factory and was regarded as hard working and jovial, seen to be providing a good home for his wife and twin sons. He put up with the banter about his background, taking home the resentment he felt at how he was treated by his peers.

Barbara also resented how her life had turned out. She rarely intervened when her husband beat their young children in the name of discipline. They lived a life on edge, always fearful of Seamus’s violent reaction to the slightest provocation.

As the youngest child, Amanda was born into a family already suffering. She was a noisy, demanding baby but started off wanting to please. She absorbed her father’s cruel taunts, his kicks and fists. Her mother appeared impotent, often drugged up on medication. Despite references to social services, nobody seemed willing to act in the best interests of the children.

The unfolding story is told from Amanda’s point of view but never descends to the style of a popular misery memoir. It is a first hand account of an abused child, their thoughts and feelings, dreams that morph into nightmare. Each incident is recalled as a snapshot from a troubled life, the detail told in a manner that is factually shocking but never gratuitous.

Amanda’s treatment over the fifteen years narrated leaves her damaged beyond anything imaginable. It is hard to see how it could be allowed to happen, yet this too is explained. When the father owns the house and provides the only income how is a woman to leave with three young kids and survive? In the competitive environment that is school, children are inherently cruel to one another. When kindly teachers try to help a pupil who is physically violent and abusive, who turns on them for reasons they cannot comprehend, how much can they practically do? Amanda saw many psychologists but struggled to tell them what they needed to know. Adults and children talk different languages.

It is hard to avoid blaming the wider family for not doing more but perhaps this was a product of the times. These were staunch Catholics, church going people who would frown upon marriage breakdown. What went on behind closed doors was rarely regarded as any business of those outside.

The extent of the damage being wrought was not understood. A story such as this can help counter such ignorance by laying out in raw and harrowing detail the full effect of childhood abuse, emotional as well as physical.

A searing, challenging tale written not to engender mawkish sympathy but rather to promote understanding. This is a stunning, agonising debut from a talented writer.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Legend Press.

Book Review: A Little Life


A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is huge in size and scope yet it contains no waste, no filler. It is an emotionally intelligent exploration of love and friendship which challenges the reader to consider difficult subjects such as childhood abuse, self harm, and the inability to escape memory. Despite this darkness it is also a beautifully written and compelling story.

The book opens in contemporary New York where four classmates from a small Massachusetts college have recently moved to start their careers. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB an undiscovered artist, Malcolm a trainee architect and Jude a lawyer. Each are introduced to the reader through narration of their shared experiences told from the perspectives of the protagonists and those they are close to. The cast is large and effortlessly diverse, their lives both ordinary and extraordinary.

The relationships between these four friends ebbs and flows. Backgrounds and influences are revealed, new friendships forged; partners come and go, priorities change. The bonds between each of the men is stretched to its limit at times as they deal with the altering attention each offers to the others. The writing is raw and powerful, an emotional roller coaster that somehow remains balanced by the quality of the prose.

There is much in the story that is uplifting but it has a dark heart. The impact of Jude’s memories effects each of the men. The intensity of certain sections relating to Jude’s childhood and his subsequent need to self-harm is challenging to read, but these grim and explicit passages are necessary for understanding. They are detailed but not sensationalist. The personal reflections allow the reader to better empathise even when action or inaction generates despair.

As the plot progresses so too does the depth of the storytelling. The writing is sparse in places, lyrical in others, but always impressive. The friends age and the layers of their lives are peeled back revealing a tenderness to counter the horror; a love story in the purest sense.

This is a remarkable literary achievement which left me feeling emotionally stunned but exceptionally satisfied. A Little Life is, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.

Book Review: Adult Onset


Adult Onset, by Ann-Marie Macdonald, is a powerful and hard hitting story about parenting, depression, memory and the scars that are carried within families.

The protagonist, Mary Rose, is a successful author who has put her writing career on hold in order to raise her two young children. She lives in fear of something hurting them, especially herself.

During the week in which the story is set her wife is working out of town leaving Mary Rose to cope on her own. As she struggles with the insatiable demands of her intransigent two year old daughter she considers her own upbringing and her sometimes fraught relationship with her parents, especially her mother.

When Mary Rose was her daughter’s age her mother gave birth to a son who died. In the months that followed she struggled to cope, relying on her older daughter, Maureen, for help. However, when Maureen was at school she would be alone with Mary Rose, often ignoring her and leaving her to cry. She was depressed and incapable of dealing with her younger child’s needs. Mary Rose has hazy memories of this time but struggles to order them or to fill in certain blanks that she believes hold the key to an injury which coloured her childhood.

Even aside from this traumatic time theirs was not always a happy home. Due to the Rh factor in her mother’s blood she suffered multiple miscarriages and a still birth as well as this early loss of a living child. Her three surviving children grew up aware of their dead siblings and Mary Rose carries guilt for the negative thoughts that she had about them at the time.

As the week progresses Mary Rose struggles to deal with her internalised anger, her memories and her feelings of isolation. To those around she appears to be coping but beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. She questions if her fear of abusing her child is because she herself suffered abuse that she cannot now recall. It becomes important to her to find out from her family what went on. Even when raised the detail of their memories often differs from her own, each having lived from their own perspective.

This story is a slow burner. It portrays the frustrations of full time motherhood by allowing the thought processes and narrative to be constantly interrupted by the minutae of life with a toddler and a school aged child. The flashbacks to Mary Rose’s mother’s life seem more compelling in these early pages. I was not truly drawn in until around half way through after which I could not put the book down.

It is easy to blame parents for their behaviour despite being aware that they raised their children by the mores of the time. It is easy to recall things said in anger and grant these words precedence over kinder thoughts. It can be hard to deal with conflicting memories from siblings when what is desired is an ally.

All of this is explored alongside Mary Rose’s current relationships with her family and friends. We see a life that is accelerating towards a precipice.

The denouement is beautifully done. I particularly liked the way in which the plot lines of Mary Roses’s books were woven in. This may not be a tale of happy ever after but neither is life. The important questions were answered, even if these were not always the ones being asked.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre.