‘This is how it happens. There is nothing and then, suddenly, something. A family is making dinner, talking, laughing, and then the outside world muscles in.’
“Dr. Allen, your son killed the next president of the United States.” – Ten words that no parent would ever wish to hear; words that no parent would ever even dream of hearing. Yet Dr Paul Allen, the narrator of this tale, ‘a man who had found contentment in life, happiness. A lucky man, who had come to expect good things’, is confronted with this reality in the middle of pizza-making with his second wife and their twin sons. Along with the rest of America, they watch the shocking news of the assassination of a charismatic Presidential candidate as it unfolds on their TVs. Minutes later, the Secret Service are at their front door revealing that the man arrested for the murder is Danny, the child of Paul’s first marriage.
Paul is instantly in denial, vehemently rejecting the possibility of his son’s guilt. A universe in which his son is able to commit murder is incomprehensible to him, and asking if Daniel is culpable is like asking ‘What if rain fell up instead of down?’ At one point, Daniel’s mother says ‘Danny shot Jesus’, as senator Seagram, though not black, was the fictional equivalent of Obama, a man who represented hope, a man loved by all.
Daniel’s actions spiral the lives of his family members into uncertainty and constant questioning, his father asking himself what he had done to make Daniel who he is, what could he have done differently?: ‘Was this what the rest of my life would be made of? Endless nights spent building alternate histories, running simulations, looking for a way out of the maze?’
Hawley explores the impact that divorce and absent parents have on children, questioning whether this core instability can extend into other parts of a person’s life. It is always too easy to point a finger at the parent, and they are always the ones that the public ultimately land up blaming and hating, ostracising them from society, allowing their shame to build a protective wall of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if bad parenting were contagious.
Paul is not without his flaws, but his unrelenting devotion to his son (though perhaps now too late) is truly heart-breaking. Swearing that ‘his vindication would be my grail’ he does everything in his power to ‘save’ Danny. This soon develops into an obsession, him tirelessly collecting and collating all information related to the crime, him reading books on famous assassinations (McVeigh, Sirhan Sirhan, Hinckley) and sharing these details with the reader, him searching for similarities between these men and his son:
‘I had spent the last three months trying to compile the evidence, to add up all the moments from Danny’s childhood that could provide a diagnosis, a definitive answer as to who he was and why he did the things he did, and yet in life everything is open to interpretation. We see the past through the prism of our perception. When a man is indicted of a crime you review his life looking for patterns. Incidents that may have been meaningless before suddenly loom large. Look. He killed spiders. That must have been an early warning sign.’
We are asked many questions through the course of this book. Who do we apportion the blame to? Is there even a need to do so? Can blame spread beyond the culprit himself?
The desire to know what leads a human being to commit a heinous crime like this, is what propels this narrative, is the reason why I found myself hooked onto every word of every page. Is it that part of us that feels alone and disconnected from the world that comes forth and does what was previously thought to be impossible? ‘A person, alone in the dark, disappears little by little, piece by piece’ until they reformulate into a different person. But then this: ‘Understanding the reason makes killing reasonable.’ Murder cannot be cleanly boxed up and categorised.
Ultimately disillusioned (and perhaps also delusional) does Danny do what he feels needs to be done, searching for his place in history? The lack of logic in his thinking and in the thinking of other seemingly intelligent men always has the ability to infuriate me, but evidently ‘the world is full of twenty-year-olds with too much in the way of balls and not enough sense. This is what young men are good for. Revolution and murder.’ That Danny doesn’t fit into the stereotypical psychological profile of a killer is important. Hawley plays with notions of nature, nurture, destiny and chance, never quite pinning down the reason why things have turned out as they have. Ambiguity is the tool of great writers; it is what gives novels lasting impact.
I. LOVE. THIS. BOOK. But then again, I knew I would. We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of my favourite books, and as this also works with themes of parenthood and innate vs. learned characteristics, that I would enjoy it was inevitable. I’m surprised this book hasn’t had more media attention; I honestly believe it to be an astonishing achievement. There are so many profound passages in it, sentences that provide great insight into the human mind and human motivations, that my list of pages to quote from grew too long to attempt both cohesion and concision. A book that I could not wait to finish yet was sad when I finally did. It did not disappoint on any level, I cannot recommend this enough. Read it.
So I’ll leave you with these two thoughts to ponder on:
- ‘We’re not all put on this earth to do what’s right.’
- ‘You can’t make a good person do bad things. You can’t change who they are fundamentally in the time it takes to eat a sandwich. That’s science fiction. The only thing that can change who we are is life.’
This is a very difficult book to review. To do so properly would mean having to reveal the ending, which would spoil the book for any potential reader as, I suppose, the way in which the story unfolds is what makes it all the more intriguing.
Having said this, I’m not sure if having a shocking conclusion galvanises the entire story into goodness. I’m not sure the ending is enough. For much of the time I was reading this book, I didn’t know what it was I was reading, where the story was going. You’ll find that any review of this book you may come across, including the blurb itself, is deliberately vague. I personally feel that this prevents you from anchoring your thoughts properly and therefore your reading becomes less focused.
Before I carry on, I should say that I actively despise this book cover. Horrendous choice. Just thought I should put that out there.
This book is about two young girls living in northern England (Yorkshire) in the 1970s. One, Gemma, lives a fairly privileged middle class life and the other, Pauline, lives in squalor amongst family members who barely register her existence. Into this story enters Lallie, a child film star who Gemma is obsessed with and whose new movie is being filmed on location at Gemma and Pauline’s school. Rude and unkempt, Pauline is a product of her surroundings, and Gemma, her mother’s child, is a pig-tailed picture of manners. An unlikely pair, a relationship of bare tolerance develops between the two, resulting in consequences that no one sees coming.
There is abuse in this book (I thought I’d help you frame your reading with this little bit of contextual information); different kinds of abuse, but abuse nonetheless. Experienced by all three girls. This alluded to without being being presented outright, which is all the more reason why the explicitness of the ending comes as even more of a shock. And the ending is the least predictable one I have ever come across. I was so troubled by it that I had to actually put the book down for minutes at a time, unable to finish a particularly disturbing sentence.
This book really made me ponder the fragility of a child’s mind, how malleable it is. How impressionable. How a child’s process of rationalisation can be so off key. How one, small decision can alter the lives of many forever. How you will never know what one is capable of doing in the dark.
I first started reading this whilst lying on South Beach in Miami. Strange, I know. A book titled The Grief of Others isn’t the most holiday-friendly book, and reading it in my light-hearted surroundings did feel a little wrong, so I stopped. And then I lost my David Sedaris book (still mad about that), so was stuck with the crap that I seemed to have accumulated on my kindle.
Once I was back in London, it took me a while to pick it up again, and there’s something about coming back to a book after you’ve abandoned it for a while that makes it even harder to start reading the second time, but I soon got into it.
I have to admit that it’s the cover of this book that drew me in: a little house with lit windows placed inside a glass jar. Very striking, absolutely love it.
This book charts the life of a family, one year after the sad death of their baby who died only 57 hours after he was born. The Ryries appear to be falling apart at the seams, each member of the family trapped inside the glass jar of their own sadness, unable to share their loss with one another. They never mention the child’s name or even acknowledge that they need to mourn him.
Parents John and Ricky struggle to keep things going, and though the routine of everyday life brings a certain normalcy to their lives, (‘Daily business, if not a balm, was at least a broth in which they’d been swept up and eddied along’), ‘their marriage was a broken body laid out on the bed between them’. Their struggle centres on a secret that Ricky has been harbouring, and once revealed, their entire relationship is brought into question. In this mess are their two older children, Paul and Elizabeth (nicknamed Biscuit), each neglected and acting out in their own way.
The unexpected arrival of John’s older daughter Jess reminds the family of a summer camping holiday they took eight years ago when they had first met Jess. Having not seen her since, Jess serves as a reminder of happier times and of what they once were.
The book is certainly slow in places, and at about three quarters of the way through, I did get a little bit bored. We spend so much time in the heads of these characters, understanding how they feel, and as a result the narrative pace suffers because there is too much thought and not enough action. Having said this, Cohen really gets into the minds of these characters and she does build a truly realistic psychological portrait of a grieving family, and allows us to understand how our own personal tragedies can help us to fully comprehend the loss and heartbreak of others: ‘as if by possessing a fuller understanding of the complexities of loss, she could not help experiencing more particularly the losses of others.’
Despite its flaws I would still recommend this book, because at its best it’s really fragile and beautiful. And if you’re not convinced, I would suggest reading just the three and a half pages of the prologue because that is an example of truly exceptional writing.
I’ve just spent the better part of the last two days reading Aimee Bender’s 'The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake'. The quirky title is what lured me in, and I can honestly say that it’s been a while since I’ve been so wrapped up in a story that a book becomes unputdownable (hence why I haven’t posted here in some time). This book has left me intrigued, confused and undeniably sad.
At the age of 9, Rose Edelstein discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in a slice of home-made lemon-chocolate cake. Where before she was cheerful and capable, Rose learns that her mother tastes of sadness, despair and desperation. So begins a life where for Rose, an average meal can become an intimate moment of revelation.
This gift of being able to read the feelings of the people who prepared the food she consumes is quite unsettling and results in Rose growing up very quickly, becoming an almost adult-child. The book follows her journey as she struggles with this gift, exploring the dynamics of her family: the father who is always there but never present, the sad mother who is always smiling, and the older brother who does not like to be touched.
I admit that I have a predilection for tales of dysfunctional families, but the Edelsteins are quietly dysfunctional: soundlessly desperate and unhappy yet not prepared for anything to change. Rose, wise beyond her years, is an excellent narrator who builds a stagnant world of surface where sadness and loss continue to permeate the air long after the last page has been read.
I recommend this book because I didn’t fully understand it, and for me, those are the kinds of books that stay with you. Let me know what you think!