Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2006,together with The Secret River by Kate Grenville, In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar, Mother's Milk by Edward St Aubyn, and The Night Watch by Sarah Waters, the year that Kiran Desai won with The Inheritance of Loss.
John lives with his mother and father, an ex-electrician who is studying towards the Trinity College exam, and his grandmother who reluctantly supports them from her inheritance from her late husband in the Irish countryside. John, aged twelve, has recently put on a growth spurt and now towers above his contemporaries. Puberty has also led to mood swings and strange behaviours: he steals, he repeatedly scratches his head, he has strange feelings towards his best friend Brendan, and he is convinced that he is a human lie detector. He never quite understands what is happening with the rocky marriage of his parents, or the relationship between his grandmother and her son.
There are some shocking moments, such as when he and his father kill the cat's new-born kittens, and when a teacher humiliates a child in John's class. It is carefully structured, as described in the next paragraph. The build up to the shocking climax in the middle of the last quarter has every brick carefully laid in place: I knew what was going to happen (although I didn't get it exactly right) so it had all the hallmarks of an Aristotelian climactic reversal and recognition: that you should be astonished by the twist but that you should realise afterwards that what happened was inevitable. I felt a little let down by the ending.
Spoiler alert in this paragraph: The book is in a classic four part structure with key incidents happening at the 25% mark (John wets himself in school), the 50% mark (the family are slung out by the grandmother and have to move to Dublin), and the 75% mark (John realises that his father has been having an affair).
It feels incredibly realistic. The conversations ramble, the plot rambles, and the characters oscillate between loving one another and hating one another, just like in a real family. The psycho-mechanics of puberty are faithfully described. Its verisimilitude is perfect.
Some marvellous moments:
- "When it comes to thinking, life is like a giant amusement park. When you walk in the park, you should want to go on all the rides." (C 3)
- "A bad temper makes me short of breath." (C 4)
- "'People say things they don't mean when they argue.' 'No,' I say, 'They say more of what they mean'." (C 6)
- "I hadn't planned these words and I wonder if it's a lie to say something if the words come out before the thought." (C 6)
- "You're growing up ... people don't baby you any more. They don't mollycoddle you. Be flattered by that. When people see you can stand on your own two feet, then they'll not let you lean on them." (C 15)
- "They say they have come to wish us bon voyage, but it is plain that they have come to see what a ruined family looks like." (C 24)
- "I hate the way people can eat no matter what has happened." (C 27)
- "I used to be beautiful. But I've had my last beautiful day. I didn't even known when it was." (C 33)
- "There will be no understanding of what I have done. I will be given no forgiveness; there will only be forgetting." (C 35)
A remarkable novel. November 2020; 325 pages
M J Hyland's debut novel was How the Light Gets In about an Australian teenager living in the US.
|This review was written|
by the author of Motherdarling