Psychological fiction of a family splintered by hard-wiring.
Before you decide this is not a novel you want to read, think again. Most of us know someone grappling with personality disorders, some so severe as to wreck their lives. Consider how touching a novel might be that deals with two members of one family with shared mental health challenges, and the impact on other members of that family. Consider the exquisite craftsmanship of Adam Haslett, a writer of great gifts. [You may remember his debut collection of stories, You are Not a Stranger Here, which was shortlisted for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.]
At heart, this is a love story – the passion of a woman for a man she might never fully understand, and whose challenges she takes on as her own – as well as maternal love. And, a tale about faith – the faith we place in each other, and our parents and siblings, to steady our journeys – and the legacy of one man over his family’s trajectory.
The novel begins in the sixties in London and over several decades moves between England, Massachusetts and Maine, and shifts voices between the five characters, each mirrors reflecting the others. The children grow up; they display their own fierce individuation, their drive and disappointment, and the bond they’ve cemented to each other.
This is a striking piece of writing, surprisingly funny in parts, heart wrenching of course, although Haslett never condescends to tug at a reader’s heartstrings. The story is powerful enough because it is told with such honesty as well as compassion.
There is one particularly amazing chapter in which the elder son describes his pastimes and pursuits over the years, categorized not by timeframe or location or even experience, rather by the medication he was on at the time. It’s as shocking a statement on psychopharmacology as I’ve read and a powerful evocation of the way in which those who struggle are expected to conform to a vague measure of normalcy.
I was drawn to each of these characters, but especially the mother, Margaret. Perhaps because I am a mother, perhaps it was her knowing sacrifice, her commitment to love and family. Whatever the reason, she spoke to me, especially when she spoke of intimacy.
It was all part of what kept up a sense of mystery between us at the start. That tension of not knowing but wanting to know. You’d think that after seventeen years of being together and three children and moving together from London to a small town in Massachusetts, this kind of mystery would be dead and gone, the ephemera of early love washed out by practicality, and much of it is.
Available in hardcover or for your e-reader. Happy new year of reading.