Book Review: You

You, by Phil Whitaker, tells the story of a father whose teenage daughter cut him out of her life after he left her mother. Told in flashbacks as he makes his way across the country to meet her for the first time in seven years, unsure if she will turn up at the rendezvous, it is a tale of inherited hurts and modern manipulation. The premise may sound familiar but its execution soars above similar tales, offering the reader an incisive portrayal of family breakdown and the damage caused by a vindictive parent from a father’s point of view.

Stevie Buchanan now lives in a West Country village but he grew up in the north of England. As he travels to Oxford, where his daughter is studying medicine and the family once lived, he takes her on an imaginary tour of significant places and events from their wider history. In his mind they fly together through time and space to observe her grandparents and parents as children. He wishes her to understand why each of them turned out as they did and how, ultimately, this caused his marriage to fail and her mother to use her children as a means to punish him for not being whatever it was that she needed.

The repercussions of parental actions ripple down through the generations. Parents’ treatment of each other, their attempts to offer what they believe is best for their offspring, perceived favouritism, and the children’s desire for love and to support a parent who is hurting, form a potent mix. The suffering and slights pierce the chrysalis of developing psyches affecting behaviours as the children grow and then become parents themselves.

When Stevie was rejected by his daughter and he came to realise how impotent he was in the face of court orders and social services, he struggled to cope. He joined a support group where other parents in similar circumstances look out for each other. Running through the narrative is a thread on the people he encounters here and their experiences. It makes for sobering reading. These are the parents whose ex-partners wield their children as pawns in their own emotional power plays.

Stevie’s flights with his daughter appear somewhat surreal yet the framework enables the telling of a history that succinctly encompasses the emotional cost of thwarted expectations. Family members and close friends take sides and are sometimes rejected. It is not just the historic damage to his wife that is explained but also Stevie’s reasons for staying as long as he did. Having left, the resulting fallout is better understood alongside the stories of his fellow victims in the support group.

The writing is subtle and concise, causes and reactions vividly expressed without need for lengthy explanations. It is refreshing to read of marriage breakdown from a husband’s point of view, although the focus remains on how the actions of all affect children long term. This is an evocative depiction of family and its reverberations.

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