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One From the Archive: ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott ****

I first encountered Little Women when I was seven or eight; I distinctly remember opening it on a cold December day and bemoaning the fact that I had to stop reading it when our family friends came round for lunch, simply because I could not tear myself away.  Whilst I so enjoyed my first encounter with the March sisters, for some reason I had not picked up the novel since.  I decided to add it to my Classics Club list merely because I felt that a re-read was long overdue.

9780147514011I am sure that Little Women has been a part of the childhoods of many, but I will recap the main details of the story for those who have perhaps not come across it before, or are yet to read the novel.  The four March sisters – Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy – all in their formative years, begin their tale by lamenting over having to forfeit their usual Christmas presents due to it being ‘a hard winter for everyone’.  Their mother tells them that she thinks ‘we ought not to spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army’.  The novel is set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, which adds a relatively dark and ever-present edge to the whole.   Their father – a hero of sorts – is fighting in the conflict, and it is his reference to his daughters as ‘little women’ that gives the novel its title.

I found myself automatically endeared to bookish Jo and young Amy, whose initial slips in vocabulary were rather adorable.  Jo is headstrong and very determined about those things which matter to her: ‘I’m not [a young lady]!  And if turning up my hair makes me one, I’ll wear it in two tails till I’m twenty…  I hate to think I’ve got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China Aster!  It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boys’ games and work and manners!  I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy!’  The dynamic between the sisters is so well crafted; there are squabbles and rivalries from time to time, but an overriding sense of love – even adoration for one another – cushions the whole.

Alcott sets the scene immediately; in just the first few pages, we find out that the Marches are relatively poor, and the detailed jobs which the girls have had to take on to aid their mother in the running of the household and the monetary needs of the family.  Her descriptions are lovely: ‘A quick, bright smile went round like a streak of sunshine’.  She is very perceptive of her characters, the girls particularly; whilst they are part of the same unit, each separate protagonist is so distinctive due to the varied character traits which prevail in their personas.  Meg is sensible, Jo concerned about maintaining a tough outer image, Beth kindly and sensitive, and Amy aware of what she believes is her own importance in the world.  Their mother, whom they affectionately call Marmee, too, is well crafted, and the initial description which Alcott gives of her is darling: ‘a tall, motherly lady with a “can I help you” look about her which was truly delightful.  She was not elegantly dressed, but a noble-looking woman, and the girls thought the gray cloak and unfashionable bonnet covered the most splendid mother in the world’.

I really like the way in which Little Women begins around Christmastime; parts of it made for a wonderful and cosy festive read.  The novel is incredibly well written, and the dialogue throughout has been well constructed.  The conversations which the characters have – particularly those which take place between the sisters – are believable, and all daily mundanity has been left out for the mostpart.

Little Women is an absolute delight to read – it is endearing, sweet, amusing and engaging, and the storyline holds interest throughout.  A lot can be learnt from this novel; the girls may not have all that much by way of possessions or money, but they always make the best of their lot, and know how to appreciate everything about them.  Through her characters especially, Alcott is rather wise at times.  I personally preferred the girls far more when they were younger; they were still interesting constructs as adults, but they were nowhere near as endearing, and for that reason alone, the novel receives a four star rating from me.

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‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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‘Thursday’s Children’ by Rumer Godden ****

Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven. 9781844088485

Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.

The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.

Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.

Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.

Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.

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Really Underrated Books (Part One)

I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my love for Goodreads lists.  I’m not really a reader of popular fiction, and prefer those works which sneak under the radar for the mostpart, so the ‘underrated’ section for books to buy and consequently fall in love with is perfect for me.  To procrastinate ever so slightly from a proofreading manuscript, I have decided to detail fifty very underrated books which I have my eye on over the next week.  They are certainly a mixed bag, but all have intrigued me.  Have you read any of these?

 

1. Collected Stories by Wallace Stegner 9780143039792
‘In a literary career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner created a remarkable record of the history and culture of twentieth-century America. Each of the thirty-one stories contained in this volume embody some of the best virtues and values to be found in contemporary fiction, demonstrating why the author is acclaimed as one of America’s master storytellers.’

 

2. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
‘Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout) is one of the most alluring and memorable characters in the fiction of the last twenty-five years. His extravagant and hopeless undertakings, his brushes with the law and scrapes with death, and his enduring friendships and unlooked-for love affairs make him a Don Quixote for our day, driven from one place to another by a restless and irregular quest for the absolute. Álvaro Mutis’s seven dazzling chronicles of the adventures and misadventures of Maqroll have won him numerous honors and a passionately devoted readership throughout the world. Here for the first time in English all these wonderful stories appear in a single volume in Edith Grossman’s prize-winning translation.’

 

97800620590553. The Bat-Poet by Randall Jarrell
‘There was once a little brown bat who couldn’t sleep days—he kept waking up and looking at the world. Before long he began to see things differently from the other bats who from dawn to sunset never opened their eyes. The Bat-Poet is the story of how he tried to make the other bats see the world his way.  With illustrations by Maurice Sendak, The Bat-Poet—a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book selection—is a collection of the bat’s own poems and the bat’s own world: the owl who almost eats him; the mockingbird whose irritable genius almost overpowers him; the chipmunk who loves his poems, and the bats who can’t make heads or tails of them; the cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and sparrows who fly in and out of Randall Jarrell’s funny, lovable, truthful fable. ‘

 

4. An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton
‘An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar “pride of lions” and “gaggle of geese” were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. When Mr. Lipton’s painstaking research revealed that five hundred years ago the terms of venery had already been turned into the Game of Venery, he embarked on an odyssey that has given us a “slouch of models,” a “shrivel of critics,” an “unction of undertakers,” a “blur of Impressionists,” a “score of bachelors,” and a “pocket of quarterbacks.” This ultimate edition of An Exaltation of Larks is Mr. Lipton’s brilliant answer to the assault on language and literacy in the last decades of the twentieth century. In it you will find more than 1,100 resurrected or newly minted contributions to that most endangered of all species, our language, in a setting of 250 witty, beautiful, and remarkably apt engravings.’

 

5. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg
‘Junie Moon, Warren, and Arthur meet in the hospital and decide to live together when they leave. Each is coping with a disability with courage, strength, and friendship.’

 

6. The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman 9780449211779
‘When the quiet and shy Amelia Jones reads these words, her life changes irrevocably. She’s just become the new owner of the Ebbtide Shop, a musty antique store filled with merry-go-round horses and hurdy-gurdies, and it is while fixing one of these barrel organs that the scrawled and threatening note falls out. Armed only with the strange woman’s first name and the note written years before, Amelia begins a journey into the past, a search that takes her from the protective cocoon she’s wrapped herself in to a precarious world where passions boil underneath the surface, where nothing is the way it seems, where fear is second nature, and dark secrets just might uncover murder—her own…’

 

7. The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall
‘Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia Peabody were in many ways our American Brontes. The story of these remarkable sisters — and their central role in shaping the thinking of their day — has never before been fully told. Twenty years in the making, Megan Marshall’s monumental biograpy brings the era of creative ferment known as American Romanticism to new life. Elizabeth, the oldest sister, was a mind-on-fire thinker. A powerful influence on the great writers of the era — Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau among them — she also published some of their earliest works. It was Elizabeth who prodded these newly minted Transcendentalists away from Emerson’s individualism and toward a greater connection to others. Mary was a determined and passionate reformer who finally found her soul mate in the great educator Horace Mann. The frail Sophia was a painter who won the admiration of the preeminent society artists of the day. She married Nathaniel Hawthorne — but not before Hawthorne threw the delicate dynamics among the sisters into disarray. Marshall focuses on the moment when the Peabody sisters made their indelible mark on history. Her unprecedented research into these lives uncovered thousands of letters never read before as well as other previously unmined original sources. The Peabody Sisters casts new light on a legendary American era. Its publication is destined to become an event in American biography. This book is highly recommended for students and reading groups interested in American history, American literature, and women’s studies. It is a wonderful look into 19th-century life.’

 

97801411837498. Southern Mail by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
‘In his first novel, Saint-Exupéry pays homage to “those elemental divinities-night, day, mountain, sea, and storm,” turning an account of a routine mail flight from France to North Africa into an epic rendering of the pioneer days of commercial aviation. The book is also a poignant reminiscence of a tragic affair, in which the uncertainties of love and flight enhance the mystery of one another.’

 

9. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: Stories by Amy Hempel
‘Amy Hempel’s collection of 16 stories seems to ask: “What if people could be just a little more like dogs – -forever loyal, ardent and loving in our hearts?”‘

 

10. Later the Same Day by Grace Paley
‘In the 17 short stories collected here, Paley writes with verbal economy and resonance, pithy insights, and warmth and humor. The themes are familiar: friendship, commitment, responsibility, love, political idealism and activism, children, the nuclear shadow.’

 

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One From the Archive: ‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne ***

I adore John Boyne’s fiction (few books make me cry, but his A Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is one of those which never fails to induce tears), but I must admit that I have been a little disappointed with a couple of his novels.  The first was The Absolutist, which I really didn’t enjoy, despite my love of its wartime setting.  I took a bit of a gamble in that case in reading Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, which is set during the First World War, but it looked too sweet not to request on Netgalley.  Plus, Oliver Jeffers’ cover illustration is beautiful.

‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne

The premise of this children’s novel is most interesting:

The day that the First World War began, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the very next morning.  Four years on, his letters have stopped, and all Alfie knows is that he’s far away on a special secret mission.

In Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, Boyne has crafted the story of a young boy who has to grow up in the face of wartime, and who has to become the man of the house at such an early age, even deciding to secretly become a shoeshine boy in King’s Cross Station to help his mother out with money.  Whilst Alfie does not always understand what is going on around him, he experiences some quite horrid events.  His friend, a young girl named Kalena Janacek, and her Czech father are taken away, believed to be ‘spies’.  Boyne describes the way in which: ‘The last Alfie saw of them was Mr Janacek weeping in the back of the van while Kalena stared out of the window behind her at Alfie, waving silently’.

The First World War began on Alfie’s fifth birthday, and the few memories he had of his father are diminishing.  Throughout, his childish naivety has been well captured.  There is an overriding sense of humour which Boyne has used at intervals, which nicely balances out the horrors of war that the adults around Alfie speak about: ‘Georgie and Margie had been very old when they got married…  His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.  Alfie found it hard to imagine what it would be like to be twenty-one years old.  He thought that it would be difficult to hear things and that your sight would be a little fuzzy’.

Boyne has built up the social and emotional history of World War One well.  I imagine that reading such a story would be a good tool to help children to understand the devastation and destruction which battles on such a wide scale can bring – death, weaponry, conscientious objectors – as well as practical ways in which the population of Britain coped in the face of such adversity, by reusing things and rationing.

The third person perspective has been put to good use, but one element of the novel did not sit well for me as an adult reader.  Alfie seemed rather too grown up for a five-year-old at times – for example, he knows all about voting for the prime minister, and speaks of it as though he is far older and wiser than his age suggests.

Boyne is a diverse author, and whilst this was not my favourite of his books (I truly doubt that anything could beat the beautifully haunting The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas for me), it has to be said that he writes just as well for children as for adults.

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Reading the World: Austria

Austria, one of the most beautiful countries which I have been lucky enough to visit thus far, is next on the list.  This is possibly my most varied list of recommendations for my Reading the World project, containing, as it does, a graphic novel, a book which nestles somewhere between child and adult literature, a novel, a piece of non-fiction, and a collection of poetry.

1. Persepolis II: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi 9780375714665(2004)
‘In” Persepolis,” heralded by the “Los Angeles Times” as one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day, Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging. Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran. As funny and poignant as its predecessor, “Persepolis 2” is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism. In its depiction of the struggles of growing up here compounded by Marjane’s status as an outsider both abroad and at home it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.’

2. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997)
‘When Ellen Carr abandons grey, dreary London to become housekeeper at an experimental school in Austria, she finds her destiny. Swept into an idyllic world of mountains, music, eccentric teachers and wayward children, Ellen brings order and joy to all around her. But it’s the handsome, mysterious gardener, Marek, who intrigues her – Marek, who has a dangerous secret. As Hitler’s troops spread across Europe, Ellen has promises to keep, even if they mean she must sacrifice her future happiness.’

97809542217203. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
‘It’s the 1930s. Christine, A young Austrian woman whose family has been impoverished by the war, toils away in a provincial post office. Out of the blue, a telegram arrives from an American aunt she’s never known, inviting her to spend two weeks in a Grand Hotel in a fashionable Swiss resort. She accepts and is swept up into a world of almost inconceivable wealth and unleashed desire, where she allows herself to be utterly transformed. Then, just as abruptly, her aunt cuts her loose and she has to return to the post office, where – yes – nothing will ever be the same.’

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
‘The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.The netsuke drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s “Luncheon of”” the Boating Party.” Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in “Remembrance of Things Past.”Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile.In “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.’

5. Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (ed. Edward Snow, 2011) 9780374532710
‘”The Poetry of Rilke” the single most comprehensive volume of Rilke’s German poetry ever to be published in English is the culmination of this effort. With more than two hundred and fifty selected poems by Rilke, including complete translations of the “Sonnets to Orpheus “and the “Duino Elegies,” “The Poetry of Rilke “spans the arc of Rilke’s work, from the breakthrough poems of “The Book of Hours “to the visionary masterpieces written only weeks before his death.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity’ by Andrew Solomon ****

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity was the winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction, and is also the recipient of twelve other awards.  It has been called, among other things, ‘a monumental book’ (Stephen Pinker), ‘a landmark, revolutionary book’ (Jennifer Egan), and ‘the most amazing book I’ve ever read’ (Curtis Sittenfield).

Throughout Far from the Tree, Solomon, a lecturer of psychiatry at Cornell University, draws upon interviews with over three hundred families, and studies those with such conditions as dwarfism, Down’s Syndrome, disorders which occur within the autism spectrum, children born of rape and those convicted of crime.  He also examines the way in which prodigies can be ‘surprisingly similar to those with disabilities’.  In Far from the Tree, he aims to discover what happens when children are radically different to their parents, and in doing so, he ‘celebrates repeated triumphs of human love and compassion to show that the shared experience of difference is what unites us’.

In his introduction, Solomon states that ‘parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity’.  He goes on to set out ‘vertical identities’, in which ‘most children share at least some traits with their parents’, and ‘horizontal identities’, where ‘someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group’.  ‘All offspring are startling to their parents,’ Solomon writes, and ‘these most dramatic situations are merely variations on a common theme’.

Solomon’s interest in writing such a study began in 1993, when he investigated Deaf culture for the New York Times, and he couples this with the fact that he himself, a homosexual and a sufferer of dyslexia, is ‘different’.  Coming to terms with the things which set him apart from others has made him want to identify a wealth of differences, and how what sets them apart from the masses often serves to make the child in question more treasured.  He is a firm believer that ‘difference unites us’, and that ‘to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state’.  The book has been split into ten sections which relate to a certain disability or trait which goes against the ‘norm’.  It begins with a chapter entitled ‘Son’, and ends with ‘Father’.

Andrew Solomon (right) with his husband John Harbich and their son, George

Throughout, Solomon writes so coherently, and makes his book an eminently readable one.  His research is immaculate and far-reaching, and he weaves a wealth of facts into his narrative.  The entirety of Far from the Tree has been crafted in such a way that it is not in the least overwhelming, even to readers who have not studied psychology in any depth before.  The case studies within the volume, which are often very touching, are interspersed alongside the history of each condition, and Solomon writes of such diverse subjects as Alexander Graham Bell’s leading of the oralist movement in the nineteenth century, which encouraged deaf people to use their voices; the way in which genetic information has been discovered over time; the origin of the genius; and the history of abortion within the United States.  Somehow, the tone of his prose is both sad and hopeful.

Solomon examines every possible way in which the child’s differences in each case have impacted upon the lives of themselves and their families, from those parents who embrace the child and do everything within their power to allow it to blossom as far as possible, to those whose parents tried to brush the issues under the carpet, and caused deep-rooted problems as a result.  He has also spoken to other researchers and specialists in each field, whose ideas he then builds upon.  It is heartwarming to see that most of those whom Solomon speaks to have made the best of themselves despite – or, in some cases, because of – their disability or difference.  He examines those who have paved the way for change for others – Clinton Brown III, for example, a dwarf, who addressed the board of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority to tell them that it was incredibly difficult for disabled people to access the city’s subway system.

Far from the Tree is a far-reaching and fascinating study upon humanity, and upon those issues which affect many of us.  It is intelligent and is certainly an important contribution to the field of child psychology.

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