Author: Rebecca Foster

Wellcome Prize Shortlist, Part 1: de Kerangal and Kalanithi

I’m delighted to announce the final members of our Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shadow panel:

Ruby blogs at My Booking Great Blog.

GrrlScientist is an ornithologist and science journalist who was on the judging panel for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize.

Along with Paul and Amy, this brings us up to five people – the same number as the official judging panel.


Luckily, I’ve already read two of the shortlisted titles, one quite recently and one nearly a year and a half ago. Here are the reviews I published on Goodreads at the time. I’ll be getting both books back out of the library soon to have another look before we choose our winner.


Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal

(translated from the French by Jessica Moore; published in the USA as The Heart)

[This is the French author’s second novel to be translated into English. It has been made into a film and won the Prix Orange du Livre and the Grand prix RTL du livre. It was also recently shortlisted for the Albertine Prize, an American readers’ choice award for contemporary French fiction. If you’re based in the States, feel free to vote by April 30th!]


Nineteen-year-old Simon Limbeau is declared brain dead in a French hospital after a car accident, but his heart lives on: metaphorically through the love of his parents, sister, friends, and girlfriend; but also literally, in the recipient of his organ donation. Again and again de Kerangal makes a distinction between the physical reality of organs and what they represent: “Simon’s eyes are not just his nervous retina, his taffeta iris, his pupil of pure black in front of the crystalline – they are also his gaze; his skin isn’t just the threaded mesh of his epidermis, his porous cavities – it’s his light and his touch, the living sensors of his body.”

The novel spends time with Simon’s family, especially his mother, but also with the transplant coordinator, the surgeons, the nurse, and so on. I was reminded of ER as well as the French TV show The Returned – this would work really well on screen, and would be a way of avoiding the more off-putting aspects of the author’s style. She writes long, run-on sentences: sometimes half a page, sometimes even stretching to two pages, and stuffs her prose with abstruse vocabulary (or at least that’s how the translator has rendered it), a lot of it medical but some of it simply inaccessible: “emollient conjugality” plus at least a dozen English words I’d never encountered (e.g. abulic, tumid, atony, claudicant, auscultation, precellence, torticollis, naevi, scialytic).

The worst example of the unnecessary opacity is “the digitigrade gait of the sardana dancer when he’s nearing a quintal, the corpulence of an ex-obese man calibrating him in thickness, in fullness, but without visible excrescence” – in plain English, the guy is stocky.


Read in November 2016.

My rating:

My gut feeling: The novel gives a vivid sense of the fragility of life and imbues parts of the body with metaphorical meaning. However, I think the style makes it too inaccessible and I can’t see its appeal ever being more than niche.


More reviews:

Annabel’s at Shiny New Books

Carolyn’s at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

[The first posthumous nominee for the Wellcome Book Prize. I’ll be interested to see what I make of this one when I revisit it.]


Paul Kalanithi was 36 and just completing his neurosurgery residency in Stanford, California when he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer that did not respond well to treatment. It came as a complete surprise to this non-smoker, and set his life on a new course. He and his coterie of doctors managed his symptoms so he could operate for as long as possible, but when the time came he knew he wanted to devote his last year to writing this memoir. In addition, he would get a brief, sweet taste of fatherhood: he and his wife Lucy, also in the medical field, decided to have a child, a daughter named Cady.

Kalanithi grew up the son of Indian immigrants in Arizona. “I was driven less by achievement than by trying to understand, in earnest: What makes human life meaningful?” he recalls. Degrees in English literature and human biology were disparate attempts to find an answer. Like Henry Marsh (Do No Harm), he has a surgeon’s knowledge of the anatomy of reasoning, but realizes that does not provide the full picture. He recognizes the responsibility of holding others’ lives in the balance, and regrets occasional failures of empathy.

Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

It’s intriguing to see religious language in that statement – indeed, Kalanithi saw his work as a calling, and one with moral connotations. Christian imagery shows up repeatedly:

Instead of being the pastoral figure aiding a life transition, I found myself the sheep, lost and confused.

Openness to human relationality does not mean revealing grand truths from the apse; it means meeting patients where they are, in the narthex or nave, and bringing them as far as you can.

When’s the last time you encountered the word “narthex”?! The vocabulary is striking throughout, as in another favorite passage: “A tureen of tragedy was best allotted by the spoonful. Only a few patients demanded the whole at once; most needed time to digest.”

Kalanithi died in March 2015. In addition to the foreword by Abraham Verghese, there’s a lovely epilogue from his widow, who’s more than competent to carry on his legacy.

I appreciate stories lived on the knife edge of life and death, but I would recommend this to those who don’t normally choose to read illness narratives, simply for the beauty of its prose – a fine blend of literature and medicine – and the wholehearted picture of a life cut short.


Read in October 2015 (Random House were looking for early readers via NetGalley).

My rating:

My gut feeling: I suspect this is by far the most popular and best-selling title on this year’s shortlist. So many people have taken it to their hearts. It will take a truly special book to knock it from the top spot.


More reviews:

Shadow panelist Paul’s at Nudge

Shadow panelist Ruby’s at My Booking Great Blog

Susan’s at A life in books


Shortlist strategy:

Currently reading: The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss – about halfway through.

Up next: Whichever of the remaining nonfiction titles turns up to the library for me first!

I’ve also sent off an emergency e-mail to Bodley Head asking for a copy of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes; it’s on loan through my library system until April 19th, which gives me no time to read it even if it comes back on time.

Blog Tour: Foxes Unearthed by Lucy Jones

Cold, delicately as the dark snow

A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;

[…]

Across clearings, an eye,

A widening deepening greenness,

Brilliantly, concentratedly,

Coming about its own business

~Ted Hughes, “The Thought-Fox” (1957)

Foxes Unearthed, freelance journalist Lucy Jones’s first book, won a Society of Authors’ Roger Deakin Award for nature writing. If you’re familiar with Patrick Barkham’s Badgerlands, you’ll recognize this as a book with a comparable breadth and a similar aim: clearing the reputation of an often unfairly reviled British mammal. Jones ranges from history to science and from mythology to children’s literature in her search for the truth about foxes. Given the media’s obsession with fox attacks, this is a noble and worthwhile undertaking.

The book proper opens with a visit to Roald Dahl’s house, now a Buckinghamshire museum, where he wrote Fantastic Mr. Fox. Still one of the best-known representations of foxes in British literature, Dahl’s Mr. Fox is a Robin Hood-like hero, outsmarting a trio of mean-spirited farmers to provide a feast for his family. Foxes’ seemingly innate wiliness prompts ambivalent reactions, though; we admire it, but we also view it as a threat or an annoyance. As Jones puts it, the fox of fables and traditional stories is “a villain we cheer for.”

Not everyone cheers, of course. Under Henry VIII, the Vermin Acts of 1532 (not repealed until the 1750s) promised a reward to anyone who killed foxes, then considered a nuisance animal. Fox hunting and the cruel sport of “tossing” have a long history that eventually came up against the movement towards animal welfare, starting with Jeremy Bentham in the 1740s and codified by the 1911 Protection of Animals Act. Meanwhile, Jones notes, children’s books advocating compassion for animals, such as Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877), ensured that the message made it out of the legislative chamber and into everyday life.

The second chapter is a useful survey of fox behavior. Foxes are omnivores, and in recent decades have started to move into Britain’s cities, where they find plenty of food to scavenge. In rural settings, foxes are still the subject of farmers’ loathing even though they rarely take lambs and actually help keep rabbit numbers in check. Still, the stereotype of foxes killing for fun instead of for hunger persists, whereas they in fact cache their surplus food. Chapter 3 asks whether fox numbers have reached pest status and considers various control strategies, from straightforward culling to the non-lethal methods supported by conservationists.

I enjoyed Jones’s meetings with figures from both sides of the debate. She goes along on a fox hunt, but also meets or quotes animal rights activists, academics, and high-profile nature promoters like Chris Packham. All told, though, I felt this book could have been closer to 200 pages than 300. Most chapters are very long, and some could easily be combined and/or shortened. For instance, Chapter 1 relays the amount of information about fox hunting that most readers will be prepared to absorb, yet it’s then the subject of two more chapters.

At the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey. Photo by Chris Foster.

This is an important book for correcting misconceptions, but your enjoyment of it will likely be in proportion to your personal interest in the subject. In terms of fonts and cover design, though, you’re unlikely to come across a more gorgeous book this year.

Foxes Unearthed was published in paperback by Elliott & Thompson on March 16th. Thanks to Alison Menzies for arranging my free copy for review.

My rating:


To encounter foxes in fiction, try the following:

& the forthcoming How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza (April 6th).


I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for the paperback release of Foxes Unearthed. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

Wellcome Book Prize 2017 Shadow Panel

Newsflash! I’ve started a shadow panel of readers who will make our way through the six medical-themed titles shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize and deliberate to choose our own winner before the official prize announcement on Monday, April 24th. I hope to get the panel up to five – I’ve been in contact with a couple of science journalists via Twitter – but for now we are three, including:

Paul Cheney: blogs at Halfman, Halfbook and writes for Nudge’s Book Life section.

Amy Pirt: blogs at This Little Bag of Dreams and writes for Mookychick and g3 magazine.


The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual award sponsored by the Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation founded by Sir Henry Wellcome in 1936 and dedicated to improving health. The current incarnation of the prize has been running since 2009 and the winner gets a whopping £30,000. Books are nominated by their publishers, and for the 2017 award cycle they must have been issued in the UK between January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2016.

One thing that’s unique about the Wellcome Prize is that both fiction and nonfiction books are eligible. Here’s how the website describes the aim of the prize:

To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness. At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

So as we’re reading (or looking back at) the six shortlisted books, those are the criteria we’ll be keeping in mind.


Here’s the full 2017 shortlist:

  • How to Survive a Plague by David France: a history of the AIDS crisis.
  • When Breath Becomes Air* by Paul Kalanithi: a posthumous memoir by a neurosurgeon.
  • Mend the Living* by Maylis de Kerangal (trans. Jessica Moore): a novel about a donor heart [published in the USA as The Heart].
  • The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss: a novel about a child who suddenly falls ill.
  • The Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee: a thorough history of genetics.
  • I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong: a survey of the human body’s microbes.

 

* = the two I’ve already read and reviewed on Goodreads. I’ll get these reviews together for my first shortlist post on Thursday. Next up for me is The Tidal Zone, which I plan to start today. I have the three other nonfiction titles on request from the public library and hope they’ll come in soon – each one is well over 300 pages, so I’ll need plenty of time with them!

For more on this year’s nominees and the official judging panel, see this Guardian article.


What interests you from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Are there some titles you’ve already read? If you’ve reviewed any of these, let me know and I’d be happy to link to your reviews when I post mine.

Also, if you’d like to read any of the shortlisted books along with us over the next five weeks, I’d love to know that you’re taking part and will help share your reviews, so do get in touch!

(A huge thanks to Naomi of The Writes of Woman for advice on running a shadow panel.)

Blog Tour: Two Voices, One Story

“[B]eing an adoptive parent is like parenting in Technicolor: everything is just a little more intense. This means the highs can be really high, but it also means that the lows are going to be really low. You have to prepare yourself.”

~Sharon Roszia, quoted in A Book about Love, by Jonah Lehrer

Two Voices, One Story is a mother–daughter memoir that splits narration duties between Elaine Rizzo and Amy Masters, the now-teenage daughter she adopted from China in 1999. Elaine’s sections provide the main thread of their story, while Amy’s passages, generally shorter and printed in italics, chime in to give her perspective on various events and relationships that have been important in her life.

Elaine is forthright about her infertility and the miscarriage that led to her decision to adopt. In the late 1990s, China’s one-child policy was still in place, but it was the severe flooding of the Yangtze River that led directly to Amy’s adoption. Thousands died and millions more were displaced. Given the context, it’s not so surprising that baby Amy was left outside a welfare center. She was given the Chinese name Tong Fang – “Copper Child.”

For me the highlight of the book was Elaine and Lee’s trip to China to pick up Amy. Although they were nervous and disoriented, they experienced the kindness of strangers and responded with compassion of their own, taking along extra toiletries and clothes of different sizes and leaving the surplus with the care center. Amy had bronchitis, one more worry on top of all the paperwork and red tape they had to go through to finalize the adoption.

Back in England, Amy had some behavioral problems that were likely vestiges of her time at the orphanage. She hated noise, especially thunderstorms; she hit herself and others; and she often woke up screaming. Private schooling ensured she wouldn’t get left behind, and there were many happy times with extended family and holidays to Australia and the west coast of Wales, where Elaine and Amy would later settle with Elaine’s second husband.

But life wasn’t always rosy: Amy was strong-willed and uncooperative – perhaps nothing out of the ordinary for a teenager, but still a challenge for her parents. Elaine recalls a social worker telling them “that very often adoptive parents don’t feel like they have the right to tell their child off, or that they think they shouldn’t say or do anything which might upset the child, because they are trying to compensate for what has happened prior to the adoption.”

Satellite image of China in 2009 by NASA (NASA Worldwind) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Lengthy commuting to her job back in England and years-long house renovations demanded much of Elaine’s attention, yet she remained alert to what was going on with Amy. Unfortunately, in her teen years Amy experienced racism from a few schoolmates, including abusive Facebook messages that drove the family to contact the police. Amy herself, though, always comes across as easygoing about being different: “Every Christmas we used to do a Nativity show and I remember being an angel first and then one of the kings, which I suppose was the right role for me because I really do come from the East.”

Even though this is a very quick read, my interest waxed and waned. The telling can be clichéd and sentimental, and I felt too much space was given to banal details that added little to an understanding of the central mother–daughter relationship. This self-published book has a very appealing cover but needs another look from an experienced editor who could fix the fairly frequent typos and punctuation issues and cut out the bullet points (nine pages’ worth) and speech tics like “I will also say…” and “I have to comment…”

I would certainly recommend this book to those who have a personal experience of or interest in adoption, particularly from overseas (for a fictional take on adoption from China, you might also try The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies, The Red Thread by Ann Hood, and This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell), as well as to anyone wondering how to parent or educate a child who is in some way different.

I’ll end with some lovely words from Amy:

when my Chinese mum left me outside the gates of the welfare center almost eighteen years ago now, because there was nothing left for me in Tongling, she must have had the desperate hope that I would find a happy life with people who loved me. I can only say that her wish did come true.

My rating:


Two Voices, One Story will be published by Clink Street Publishing on March 21st. Thanks to Rachel Gilbey of Authoright Marketing & Publicity for arranging my free copy for review.

I was pleased to participate in the blog tour for Two Voices, One Story. See below for details of where other reviews and features have appeared or will be appearing soon.

First Encounter: Karl Ove Knausgaard

For years I felt behind the curve because I had not yet read the two prime examples of European autofiction: Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard. It seemed like everyone was raving about them, calling their work revelatory and even compulsive (Zadie Smith has famously likened Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels to literary “crack”). Well, my first experience of Ferrante (see my review of My Brilliant Friend), about this time last year, was underwhelming, so that tempered my enthusiasm for trying Knausgaard. However, I had a copy of A Death in the Family on the shelf that I’d bought with a voucher, so I was determined to give him a go.

I read this first part of the six-volume “My Struggle” series over the course of about two months. That’s much longer than I generally spend with a book, and unfortunately reflects the fact that it was the opposite of compelling for me; at times I had to force myself to pick it up from a stack of far more inviting books and read just five or 10 pages so I’d see some progress. Now, a couple of weeks after finally reading the last page, I can say that I’m glad I tried Knausgaard to see what the fuss is all about, but I think it unlikely that I’ll read any of his other books.


Written in 2008, when he was 39, this is Knausgaard’s record of his childhood and adolescence – specifically his relationship with his father, a distant and sometimes harsh man who drank himself to an early death. And yet at least half the book is about other things, with the father – whether alive or dead – as just a shadow in the background. I found it so curious what Knausgaard chooses to focus on in painstaking detail versus what he skates over.

For instance, he spends ages on the preparations for a New Year’s Eve party he attended in high school: acquiring the booze, the lengths he had to go to in hiding it and lugging it through a snowy night, and so on. He gives a broader idea of his school years through some classroom scenes and word pictures of friends he was in an amateur rock band with and girls he had crushes on, but these are very brief compared to the 50 pages allotted to the party.

Part Two feels like a significant improvement. It opens at the time of composition, with Karl Ove the writer and family man in his office in Sweden – a scene we briefly saw around 30 pages into Part One. I like these interludes perhaps best of all because they make a space for his philosophical musings about writing and parenthood:

Even if the feeling of happiness [fatherhood] gives me is not exactly a whirlwind but closer to satisfaction or serenity, it is happiness all the same. Perhaps, even, at certain moments, joy. And isn’t that enough? Isn’t it enough? Yes, if joy had been the goal it would have been enough. But joy is not my goal, never has been, what good is joy to me? The family is not my goal, either. … The question of happiness is banal, but the question that follows is not, the question of meaning.

Writing is drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about. Not what happens there, not what actions are played out there, but the there itself.

At about the book’s halfway point we finally delve into the title event. About a decade previously Karl Ove got a call from his older brother, Yngve, telling him that their father was dead. Almost instantly he found himself trying to construct a narrative around this fact, assessing his thoughts to see if they had the appropriate gravity:

this is a big, big event, it should fill me to the hilt, but it isn’t doing that, for here I am, staring at the kettle, annoyed that it hasn’t boiled yet. Here I am, looking out and thinking how lucky we were to get this flat … and not that dad’s dead, even though that is the only thing that actually has any meaning.

Karl Ove Knausgaard at Turku Book Fair, 2011. By Soppakanuuna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
He and Yngve met up to make funeral arrangements and view their father’s body, but the majority of this section – about 175 pages with the exception of flashbacks, many to earlier moments in his relationship with his brother – is about cleaning up the house where his father died. Their grandmother, who was in an early stage of dementia, still lived there and was barely in better shape than the property, littered as it was with empty bottles and excrement.

What puzzles me, once again, is Knausgaard’s fixation on detail. He describes every meal he and Yngve shared with their grandmother, their every conversation, what he ate, how he slept, what he wore, what he cleaned and how and when. How could he possibly remember all of this, unless the journal that he mentions keeping at the time was truly exhaustive? And why does it all matter anyway? Does this slavish recreation fulfill the same role that obsessive action did back then: displacing his feelings about his father?

This is all the more unusual to me given the numerous asides where the author/narrator denigrates his memory:

I remembered hardly anything from my childhood. That is, I remembered hardly any of the events in it. But I did remember the rooms where they took place.

nostalgia is not only shameless, it is also treacherous. What does anyone in their twenties really get out of a longing for their childhood years? For their own youth? It was like an illness.

Now I had burned all the diaries and notes I had written, there was barely a trace of the person I was until I turned twenty-five, and rightly so; no good ever came out of that place.

Why did I remember this so well? I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me.

The best explanation I can come up with is that this is not a work of memory. It’s more novel than it is autobiography. It’s very much a constructed object. Early in Part Two he reveals that when he first tried writing about his father’s death he realized he was too close to it; he had to step back and “force [it] into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature.” Style and theme, he believes, should take a backseat to form.

Ultimately, then, I think of this book as an experiment in giving a literary form to his father’s life and death, which affected him more than he’d ever, at least consciously, acknowledged. Even if I found the narrative focus strange at times, I recognize that it makes for precise vision: I could clearly picture each scene in my head, most taking place in an airy house with wood paneling and shag pile carpeting matching its 1970s décor. Maybe what I’m saying is: this would make a brilliant film, but I don’t think I have the patience for the rest of the books.

My rating:


Whether or not you’ve read Knausgaard, do you grasp his appeal? Should I persist with his books?

Medical Mysteries: Joselin Linder’s The Family Gene

Yes, another memoir on a medical theme! I really do read a lot of them. My eye was drawn to The Family Gene: A Mission to Turn My Deadly Inheritance into a Hopeful Future by Joselin Linder because of the medical mystery aspect: 14 members of Linder’s Ashkenazi Jewish family are the only known exemplars of their particular genetic disease, so rare it doesn’t have a name or surefire treatment protocol, but now at least has a location on a chromosome.

Linder’s awareness of her family’s peculiar medical problems began when her father, William, himself a doctor near their home in Columbus, Ohio, started having a persistent build-up of lymph (also known as chyle) in his abdomen – usually a sign of heart or liver failure. At one point doctors tapped four liters of the stuff from his lungs. Her father’s illness threw Linder, then a junior in college, for a loop; drugs and music started to replace academics. After he died, aged 49, in September 1996, she became a nomad, moving from Prague to San Francisco to Brooklyn and dabbling in different careers.

Only gradually did they all realize that the same thing had happened to William’s uncle, Nathan, in the 1960s and his grandmother, Mae, before that. While Mae lived to age 54, Nathan died at 34, even after treatment at NIH. Along with the lymphedema, a heart murmur was a common factor. William’s brother, Norman; Linder and her older sister, Hilary; and various cousins of their generation were diagnosed in this way. The author’s own symptoms were initially easily to ignore – swollen ankles and a low platelet count – but escalated in her thirties: a blocked vein in her liver meant she was in danger of bleeding out if she vomited.

It’s rare to be able to trace a genetic disease from its founder through to the present. In Linder’s case, her great-great-grandmother, Ester Bloom, is the first known sufferer. Researchers eventually isolated their family’s gene on the X chromosome, near the location for asthma. This explained why, historically, female family members had a better prognosis than males – they have one normal X chromosome and one diseased one; men only get the defective X chromosome – and why asthma medication helped to an extent.

There are a couple of chapters here on the basics of genetics that felt a little condescending to me; for anyone with a high school or A level biology qualification, the simplistic metaphors explaining the workings of DNA may seem superfluous. I also had trouble relating to Linder’s immediate reaction to her father’s death. Although he’d been severely ill for years by then, her attitude still seems a little heartless. Of the decision to take him off dialysis, she writes, “I was on board. It was time to call it a day.” When the family went around expressing opinions, she said, “I think it’s time, Dad. You’ve been through so much,” to which he replied “F— you”! An ex-boyfriend’s suicide a couple years later affected her much more than her own father’s death. Grief affects people in strange and unpredictable ways, I guess.

What I most appreciated was how the book sensitively reveals the ways a genetic condition complicates life, especially in America: Linder had to do without health insurance for 10 years, having been denied it in Ohio on the grounds of a pre-existing condition. In addition, she and her sister faced a quandary common to those who carry genetic diseases: should they have children? While Hilary underwent pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, a form of IVF, to bear healthy twins, Linder ultimately decided against having children.

I enjoyed the earlier part of this genetic quest narrative a bit more than the later material about Linder’s symptoms. Still, I can recommend this to viewers of House and readers of Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire and the like.


The Family Gene is released by Ecco today. With thanks to Beth Parker and James Faccinto for the electronic review copy via Edelweiss.

My rating:

Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh

Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.

Why would I be missing you so violently?

We’re all the hero when directing the scene,

But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.

(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)

I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.

The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.

Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.

Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.

This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.

I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”

Jim Jones in 1977. By Nancy Wong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”

For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)

Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.

My rating:


Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.