Book Review: The Fragments of my Father

“Being a carer can sometimes mean that you end up being an emotional punchbag. You have to remind yourself that it’s often your loved one’s illness speaking, not them.”

In the summer of 2010, Sam Mills’ mother, Glesney, was diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Sam’s father, Edward, had suffered from schizophrenia since she was a young child and Glesney had dedicated her married life to caring for him. Now she would need help. Their daughter agreed to move back to the family home in London, from a village outside Manchester where she had felt happily settled, to become her parents’ carer. Her two brothers had full time jobs whereas Sam’s work was mostly freelance. Nevertheless, she was unaware at the time the toll this role would take on her life and health.

The Fragments of my Father is a memoir chronicling the costs of caring for loved ones. Alongside her own experiences, Sam writes of other authors who were carers for many years – Leonard Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald. The former she regards in a positive light, unlike the latter. Although shocking at times, the details of these men’s treatment of their wives are explored with the caveat that carers are human whose own desires risk being subsumed by the needs of their mentally ill relative.

Edward suffers episodes of catatonia that result in him being sectioned and placed in care homes for the mentally unstable. His anti-psychotic medication is designed to prevent this – to provide scaffolding – but leaves him a shadow of the man he could otherwise have been.

 “It seemed such a waste, his life. If only he had been born in a different era, when his voice might have been accepted rather than labelled a sickness he had to fight. The medications he’d taken were not cures, just compromises, putting him in purgatory, half-awake, half-alive.”

Of course, this is not the whole story. When his drugs didn’t work Edward would become agitated and upset by the voices in his head. Unable to repress his emotions, he would express them in ways deemed unacceptable. Society couldn’t cope with his erratic behaviour – such as his choice to wander naked. Medication made him acceptable.

“his symptoms subdued into a sad, quiet existence”

Sam writes of her childhood – of her father’s absences and the impact his inability to hold down a job had on his family. She was a teenager before she understood his behaviour was a named illness – it took years to reach acceptance and look into what schizophrenia meant. When caring for him, she tried to work out what could have caused his mental breakdown. She muses on the balance between madness and the inspiration of artistic creatives.

Glesney married Edward with expectations of a fulfilling life that were repeatedly stymied. Sam reflects on what her mother lost, and on how she herself will cope with the ongoing situation and the pressures it brings. Caring demands more than action. It brings with it an emotional burden. Difficult decisions must be made for patient and carer.

I read this book as someone who chose the more selfish route. When my increasingly frail parents required hands-on support in their old age, I refused to leave my husband and children to move country – as requested by my sister – and share with her the burden of caring for them. As a result, she shouldered this alone for close to a decade until their deaths last year. The fraught and at times angry updates she would give me came to mind as I followed the experiences the author reflects on – her mental and physical exhaustion and need for breaks she couldn’t take.

Sam was unsure about writing this memoir but was encouraged by a friend to do so.

“I was worried being a carer might be seen as a boring topic to explore. Unglamorous. I said that perhaps I ought to choose a sexier subject. He replied that this was exactly why I ought to write it, because there are numerous books out there about doctors and high-flying surgeons and so few about those for whom caring is an unpaid, everyday duty. There are currently 6.5 million carers in the UK, which means that 1 in 8 of us are carers; the number is set to rise”

What comes to the fore in these reflections is the difficulty of providing for those in need when society has little interest in illness – regarding it as something to be managed stoically, or institutionalised. Family carers find their lives and choices revolving around the needs of their loved ones, their own requirements and ambitions slotted into whatever crevices they can carve out in terms of time and energy. There is love but also a strong sense of duty – ties that bind.

The book is structured in a fragmented timeline, jumping between: Sam’s life, the years spent caring for her mother, the effects of her father’s illness, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The language employed is direct, with just the occasional use of words I had to look up: inanition, quiddity. These help emphasise the author’s obvious intelligence, something carers must worry they lose recognition for when they take on a role that is largely undervalued.

This is a story that packs a punch and will resonate with all who have loved ones in need of care, or who face the prospect of need themselves. Sam does not hold herself up for admiration but rather presents this memoir as a cry for better support for all those who, like her, suffer emotionally and financially in order to keep loved ones well. It is also a reminder that mental health issues deserve more empathy and attention.

“psychiatry should not ask the question ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’

A poignant and timely read from a skilled writer. Recommended.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate, at the request of The Barbellion Prize, for which it is shortlisted.

Book Review: Plume

Plume, by Will Wiles, is set in contemporary London, albeit one that makes no reference to multiculturalism. Its protagonist is Jack Bick who works as an interview journalist for a glossy lifestyle magazine. It explores such fictions as: truth, memory, aspiration, and social media.

When Jack first moved to London it was still possible to get a foot in the door of journalism without first serving as an unpaid intern. It was possible to believe that, one day, he may become a home owner in the city. He mixed with the right people; moved into a rented flat with his girlfriend. The raw edges of his life could be smoothed over with a few drinks at the end of the day.

The story opens at a weekly work planning meeting. Jack is zoning out, not just from boredom but from the effort of not being found out for what he has become. His timekeeping is erratic; the work he submits unoriginal and shoddy. The word is that there will be cutbacks and he fears what this could mean for him.

The shockwave from an explosion in the east of the city barely registers initially but marks the beginning of what Jack believes may be the end of long desired possibilities.

He resents the rent he must pay for a dark little flat that suffers noise intrusion from neighbour’s building work. He resents that his ambition is growing ever further beyond his reach. Jack is an alcoholic. Hiding the effects of this from colleagues is becoming increasingly difficult.

Jack plans to interview a reclusive author, Oliver Pierce. Contact was made through a mutual acquaintance who has developed a new type of social media app, due to be rolled out further afield. Jack’s boss would prefer if he interviewed a property developer at the forefront of recent regeneration projects. Between them these people represent everything Jack has missed out on, including the financial success that would enable him to buy rather than rent.

A key character is the setting and the effect London has on its residents. As the plot and associated action moves between areas – the pockets of wealth and still dodgy streets – what is seen and what is believed is shown to be key to satisfaction and behaviour. Landlords look to enhance their assets with little regard for pesky tenants. Middlemen step in to assist those who can pay.

Jack is not the only man facing a crisis. Oliver has agreed to be interviewed because he wishes to atone for past behaviour – a lie he has been living that generated his success. Both men’s actions are erratic and often dangerous yet they are not as autonomous as they may wish to believe. There are manipulations from shady sources, and from the mirage of a lifestyle they are encouraged to pursue.

The author has captured the zeitgeist, particularly around Shoreditch, and presents it with wit and candour. Interspersed with keen imagery are nuggets of local reference to amuse. As a reader of Kit Caless’s book I was tickled by the man in Wetherspoons photographing his shoes. The Winterzone event that Jack and Oliver attend encapsulates the conflicting interests and benefits of widespread city regeneration.

Beneath the personal facade lies a yearning for rose tinted pasts and futures alongside a desire for authenticity, whatever that may mean. Yet life can only be enjoyed within the confines of personal comfort and security. London is an amalgam; it is alive and it is dirty. Those who pass through, however long for, see only fragments through a glass darkly.

The writing is fluid and entertaining, the characters well rendered if of a type. There is much to ponder, more to enjoy. Despite my reservations about breadth of representation, this is a piquant and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 4th Estate.

Book Review: High Rise

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High Rise, by J.G. Ballard, tells a story of extreme social breakdown in a modern London apartment block designed to provide everything the discerning resident could desire. Although first published in 1975 it is disturbingly prescient, or perhaps timeless, examining the way man behaves when he is freed from the civilities forced on him by authority figures since childhood. There are Freudian undertones, a desire for obeisance and power, especially as regards the opposite sex.

The High Rise in question is the first of five upmarket apartment blocks being developed on wasteland near a river. Each contains forty floors of accommodation and is divided into three sections by amenity and service levels. The higher the level an apartment is on the more desirable it is seen to be. Each third is regarded by the residents as the lower, middle and upper social classes, with the penthouse apartments the ultimate in achievement.

The story is told from the point of view of residents in each of the three sections. Richard Wilder works for a film making company and lives on the second floor with his wife and two sons. Doctor Robert Laing, a childless divorcee,  has a studio apartment on the twenty-fifth floor. Anthony Royal, one of the architects behind the design of the building, lives with his aristocratic young wife in one of just two penthouse suites. He comes to regard Wilder as his nemesis.

The detached narration adds to the tension and enables the reader to cope with the increasing brutality of the unfolding drama. What starts as low level discontent, as services fail and disturbances caused by loud and lively partying become increasingly invasive, soon turns to confrontation. Those on the higher floors expect and demand preferential treatment in a building designed to offer access for all. As simmering resentments boil over there is regrouping around more radical and belligerent leaders. Each resident watches unfolding events voyeuristically, to some degree hoping to see neighbours they secretly despise debasing themselves.

In places the story makes little sense (why did so many residents stay?) yet it also exposes why man often behaves as he does. The same ruthlessness and aggression exists widely, concealed within a set of polite conventions. It is common to hide the flaws in a life from others, to keep up appearances.

Early on there are observations on the apparently homogenous residents who have populated the High Rise:

“By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments”

At one of the first parties Laing attends he observes that:

“never far below the froth of professional gossip was a hard mantle of personal rivalry.”

By the end, when the order of both building and residents has been subsumed, Royal observes:

“he had constructed a gigantic, vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realized that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.”

Perhaps what this story most demonstrates is that nothing in life is as secure as we may like to think. When breakdown occurs, the actions of those we thought we knew can be hard to predict.

A blistering deconstruction of supposedly civilised society. This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read.

Book Review: Foxlowe

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Foxlowe, by Eleanor Wasserberg, is set in a community removed from the modern world yet unable to escape its draw. It is populated by artists and sculptors, and by three children named October, Green and Blue. The narrator is Green, the only member to have been born within the commune’s confines. She regards the other residents as her family and harbours a fear tinged with curiosity for life outside.

The children’s playground is the large and crumbling house where they live, the gardens where they grow food and keep livestock, and the neighbouring moorland close to standing stones from whence a double sunset may be viewed on the summer solstice. This event is a time of plenty and celebration. It is used to exorcise the bad and to heal.

From the beginning it is clear that a darkness exists within this closed community. There is cold and hunger, secrets and jealousies, ideals they are struggling to make work. Rules exist to insulate the residents from life outside, to drive out the bad they have left behind but which threatens to invade.

Those who choose to leave from time to time may never be talked of again. Personal possessions are discouraged yet desired. The children are being raised to value this way of life, the freedom it offers within self imposed confines. If they break the rules, let the bad in, they are burnt or bled to drive it out.

The story opens with the arrival of a baby girl. She will be named Blue and is looked after by one of the three founders, Freya. Green feels a special bond with Freya and begrudges the attention this invader demands. Thus begins a troubled relationship, sisters who will both love and hate one another.

Green accepts the rules, resenting the punishments but fearing both Freya and change. From an early age Blue refuses to be so compliant. As time passes and her punishments mount, so too does her desire to leave.

The children only have each other to mitigate the boredom of their unstructured days. They do not comprehend the cracks that are growing, threatening all they know. They muse over what the outside world may be like. When Blue seeks it she triggers a reaction that she cannot control.

The writing is masterful. From first page to last the horror of the children’s situation seeps through. By telling this tale from their point of view the reader can understand how such a skewed world could be created. When a situation becomes intolerable an adult may walk away. Children cannot. The scars inflicted run deep.

The dread that pervades leaves the reader in no doubt that the denouement will be shocking. I was still chilled when the detail was revealed. As all that had gone before became clear the author manages a final twist of the knife. It is gloriously unsettling.

There is much to ponder: the evils of the modern world; nature, nurture and spiritual beliefs; allowing parents freedom to raise their children as they see fit. This story may not be for the faint hearted but it is a cracking read. Enter Foxlowe if you dare.

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

 

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies

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Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel, is the second book in a proposed trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII (the first in this series is Wolf Hall which I review here). In this part of the story the author covers the machinations which led to the trial and beheading of Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to allow the king to marry Jane Seymour.

Although written with the same assurance and impressive attention to detail I nevertheless found this book less compelling than its predecessor. It is hard to be critical of a work of such high, literary quality; I only do so because I compare it to Wolf Hall and find less to commend. The background to the characters and their relationships have already been covered. These few months of history have been dramatised so extensively elsewhere that there is little new to learn.

What the reader does get is further insight into why Cromwell chose to bring down certain courtiers and not others. He was loyal to his friends and ruthless towards his enemies. His prodigious memory ensured that he did not forget any slight towards himself or those who had helped him in his unprecedented rise within a powerful court reserved for the aristocracy. Cromwell earned his place by ensuring that, when the King required an outcome, he would provide. He gained his own personal revenges along the way.

“He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged.”

Cromwell plays a long game, his plans and intrigues reminding me of a game of chess. He can never be sure of his opponents next move but, having studied them carefully over many years, he makes informed guesses and adjusts his strategies accordingly. Much of what he thinks is kept hidden behind his austere facade, calm bearing and growing reputation. He knows that there are many who would wish to bring him down and carefully cultivates those whose loyalty he will one day call upon. Everything is held to account.

This is a deftly written and still fascinating narration from a master story teller. That I did not enjoy reading it quite as much as I did Wolf Hall should not detract from my view that it is an exceptional, historical biography which vividly portrays the politics and passions of the time. Hilary Mantel well deserves the many accolades she has received. I look forward to reading the conclusion to this trilogy when it is published.

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is the first book in a proposed trilogy which explores the life of Thomas Cromwell and his relationships with his contemporaries in the court of Henry VIII. Much has, of course, been written about the Tudors, especially those who came and went during the reign of this much married monarch. The main plot holds few surprises yet the author weaves an engrossing tale around these key events. This is a compelling and fast moving story which takes the reader into the heart of the powerhouses of Britain at that time. It is a reminder that social changes have complex settings.

Thomas Cromwell was noteworthy because he was low born yet rose to become the king’s key advisor in an age when the aristocracy guarded their power with an iron fist. Cromwell’s prodigious memory and attention to detail, alongside his political astuteness, enabled him to ride the changing tides of favour and fortune which brought so many others down. He bought and sold secrets with adroitness, a shadowy figure amongst peacocks. He valued knowledge and looked after his own.

The story is a fascinating biographical fiction but it is the quality of the prose which sets the book apart. Well known names are given life, the period is evoked with precision but also feeling. Cromwell’s inner thoughts offer explanations as to why notable events occurred as they did.

As Cromwell mulls over events, calculating odds on emerging players, he keeps much hidden from the reader, as he does from all those who surround him. In rare moments he will recognise in himself certain of his less admirable characteristics. How often do we all rewrite even our own memories?

Despite being over six hundred pages long the plot moves along apace and the writing flows. Use of language and imagery are exquisite. I am wary of Booker Prize winning novels as I have, in the past, found some to provide turgid reading; to be scholarly more than enjoyable. This is a readers book, an immersive and captivating story presented in an accessible, potent voice.

Book Review: Purity

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, is a story about power – within relationships and across nations – and the psychological damage it can cause to the powerful and the overpowered. Several of the key characters appear to be mentally unbalanced, forever seeking validation through emotional blackmail. What they think of as love is possession and control.

The story, which spans more than half a century, is told from the perspectives of each of these characters in turn. As with memory, the details vary depending on who is recalling events and where they currently are in their lives. What is common to each thread is the visceral honesty which can be disturbing and distasteful to read. The animal instincts and selfishness are presented unadorned.

The reader is first introduced to Purity Tyler who considers her name an embarrassment so calls herself Pip. She is working in telesales and living in a squat having amassed a huge debt getting through college. She is a good daughter, regularly phoning her needy mother, but has many neuroses including a lack of impulse control. She wishes to find out who her father is, a subject that her single mother has always refused to discuss.

A German visitor to the squat, Annagret, invites Purity to join a collective in Bolivia run by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. His Sunlight Project is presented as something akin to Wikileaks, shining light into the corners of the internet which the powerful prefer to keep hidden. Andreas grew up in East Germany, the child of prominent government employees. It soon becomes clear that he himself has plenty he wishes to hide.

When the Berlin Wall comes down Andreas meets Tom Aberant, an American journalist who is, at that time, facing the end of his ten year marriage to the mentally deranged Anabel. Andreas wishes to pursue a beautiful young girl whom he has come to know through his work as a counsellor at a church where he has been living. He asks Tom to help him, regarding him as a friend despite having only just met. The secrets he confides and the actions they take will haunt Andreas for the rest of his life.

The background to and inter-relationships between these characters are explored in excoriating detail. There is a great deal of masturbation and sex, there is cunilingus, porn and abuse. All of this is recounted alongside, and perhaps as a reaction to, the mental gymnastics that the parents and partners play as they attempt to bend those they claim to love to their will.

I found elements of the story difficult to read but consider it well written. The author gets under his reader’s skin with memorable characters and challenging situations. Do we blame upbringing or mental illness for a character’s flaws? Is it mental illness or an honest representation of base thoughts to which many are prone?

The search for purity is a recurring theme as well as a play on the protagonists name. Beauty and purity are mistakenly conflated, guilt excised by distance from the harmed. That each of the characters made mistakes in their treatment of others is undeniable. The exploration of the extenuating circumstances of those failures, the deliberation over how typical these experiences may be, are what give this tale its strength.

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

 

Book Review: A Reunion of Ghosts

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A Reunion of Ghosts, by Judith Claire Mitchell, is a novel of poignancy and dark humour. It tells the tale of three, middle aged, Jewish sisters living in New York at the turn of the century. It is written as their suicide note.

Throughout their lives these sisters have believed that they were condemned by a family curse. Their great grandfather, a Nobel prize winning chemist, was responsible for the development of a product used to kill thousands in times of war, a product so deadly that they believe it continues to poison the world today. Each generation of the family since has had members who have committed suicide, a legacy that the sisters intend to emulate. This book tells the story of four generations of their family. It is a history passed down to them and experienced by them; the repercussions have coloured their lives.

Despite the shadow of death that pervades the tale this is not a depressing story to read. Puns and perceptive observations add wit and wisdom. The voices given to the sisters is stereotypically Jewish despite their claims to have no interest in the faith.

The prose is full of insightful asides that caused me to pause periodically to digest. In their efforts to try to come to terms with themselves the sisters dissect every experience looking for coincidences, reasons, proof that the family curse exists. These thoughts and discussions offer the reader a window on not just the lives that the sisters lead but on life.

They are incredibly close, living together in the same sprawling apartment that their grandparents furnished with the family heirlooms brought to America when they fled Europe and Hitler. The sisters still organise the kitchen cupboards as their mother and grandmother did. Even in the mundane they seem unable to move on.

This is a fascinating story that weaves fact into fiction with aplomb. It takes historical figures and real events as a basis from which to create a mostly fictional family history. It explores the damage that can be caused when troubles are considered to be preordained and deserved, and when such thoughts are given credence by others.

I enjoy family sagas, and this one is deftly written. Perhaps it was the unfashionable idea that death is simply an inevitable part of life that appealed, that it is not to be feared and is available as a choice. What should not be ignored is the brutal impact such choices can have on the living.

The final chapters added another dimension to the tale and created a satisfying denouement. The pathos of these sisters’ lives was perhaps that they never tried to live in any other way.

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