Keith considers recent books which throw light on children, parenting and human behaviour – and they are not text books.
One of he tasks that falls to me each year at Mill Grove is the writing of our annual newsletter we call Links. It’s designed to communicate news between members of the Mill Grove family dispersed around the world. The two biggest sections are therefore called, unsurprisingly, “Family News” and “Diary”. Writing it takes about a week of pretty concentrated effort, sifting through diaries, notes, letters, photos, greetings, newspaper cuttings and so on. It’s a very rewarding endeavour, not least because when it reaches people a very common comment is that they “stopped everything they were doing and read it from cover to cover”.
It so happens that I have just finished the copy and selection of photos for this year’s Links. And this means that my head is full of the events, routines, visitors, achievements, births, marriages and deaths of last year. And this in turn led me to think of some of the books that I had read (from cover to cover, of course!) in 2006 that I would commend to readers of Children Webmag.
As a university lecturer I rarely recommend books to students, knowing that in general they prefer lecture notes, websites and articles. But my sense is that you might be interested to know the sort of books that resonate with, and perhaps even indirectly, inform what we do in our residential community.
My guess is that you would tend to think of books about child care theory and practice, and there were several of these in 2006, but it is two novels that I want to add to my list of recommendations in this column (that includes The Kite Runner and Out of the Woods: Tales of Resilient Teens (Adolescent Lives)). The two books I have chosen at the end of the year are My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult (London: Hodder 2004), and We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver (New York: Counterpoint, 2003). Neither is a light read in the sense that they bring the sort of light relief you might get from reading Bill Bryson or Terry Pratchett, but they are both gripping stories by first rate writers. Their focus is on relationships within families.
My Sister’s Keeper
Without spoiling things for those who have yet to read them, here are brief summaries of the stories. In My Sister’s Keeper, a girl named Anna is conceived by her parents in order to provide tissue and organs for her older sister who is seriously ill with leukaemia. At the age of 13 Anna decides to take legal action against her parents to prevent the donation of one of her kidneys that might save Kate, her sister’s life. The taut story unfolds with key characters (including mother, father, both sisters, brother, solicitor, and Guardian ad Litem) narrating events. There is a very dramatic ending that like the denouement of The Mousetrap cannot be revealed without wrecking the tension of the unfolding drama.
We Need to Talk about Kevin
In We Need to Talk About Kevin a separated mother writes letters to her former husband retelling the story of the conception, birth and life of their only son, Kevin, who the reader learns early on, is in prison for mass murder. Again there is a dramatic twist to the final part of the story that cannot be divulged. The mother is what would normally be thought of as a successful middle-class woman whose income derives largely from a series of travel books that are intended as rivals to the Rough and Lonely Planet Guides.
You see immediately what I mean about them not being easy reading, and like marriage, they should not be undertaken inadvisedly or lightly. In fact one of my family who read them suggested that they should perhaps come with psychological or emotional health warnings! So why do I recommend them so enthusiastically? Both take seriously the perspectives, feelings and views of the children and young people in the stories. And there is no hint of sentimentality about the way these are expressed. Kevin makes it clear to his mother on one of her visits to him in prison that he’d murder children again, and that in being taken from his home into custody he has “swapped one shithole for another” (p.50). Anna and Kate have frank conversations about the best way to die (p.132). The writers have managed, like Mark Haddon in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to enter into the world of children convincingly.
And then there is a frankness and realism about parenting, attachment and bonding. In the case of Shriver’s book it is possibly the most brutal and revealing frankness I have ever read. The truth is that whatever we would like families and relationships to be like, however cosy, warm and loving we convince ourselves normal families are, the truth is that in every family and every relationship there is conflict and tension. These writers have chosen to expose the origins and motivations of fault lines and battles between family members in the most extreme of circumstances.
Both books are well written as narratives, with insightful images, metaphors and reflexivity. I could go on in this vein, but I am writing this piece not for the Times Literary Supplement, but for an electronic magazine whose readers have reason to expect that what I am writing relates in some measure to understanding and caring for children.
And this is exactly why I commend them to you. Over the past year I have also read many government documents, policy papers and briefings by voluntary organisations working with children, case notes and Looking After Children forms, and none of them comes remotely near to either of these novels in demonstrating that they have genuinely entered into a child’s world. Living with children on a daily basis obviously gives me some unique opportunities to observe, interact with and listen to expressions of this world. It is full of wonder, brilliant flashes of insight, blunt criticisms and harsh comment, vivid and intense emotions, fantasies and dream-like non-sequiturs, untainted by sentiment or political correctness. Little if any of this seems to filter into the world of formal “caring for children”. (Try re-reading Every Child Matters, should you really want to test this out!)
If you consider reading either or both of these books, you will, in my view, have your eyes opened and your horizons broadened: both have the ring of truth about them. The way I tend to define “truth” in literature is that a work links with the real world in such a way that it opens it up, and forges new links and associations. I don’t think that you will listen to children or parents in the same way again, and if you are a parent, then some of the hidden emotions and feelings that you have always felt guilty or shameful about will find expression.
And one more thing: Shriver’s book has a lot in common with tragedies: despite the harrowing unfolding of a story of flawed characters, and the relentless descent into destruction and death, there is an extraordinary sense of hope in the midst of, and through, it all. (I am thinking particularly of Hamlet and King Lear as I write.) Let me share with you a few lines from the last letter from Kevin’s mother:
“This is all I know. That on the 11th of April 1983, unto me a son was born, and I felt nothing. Once again, the truth is always larger than what we make of it. As that infant squirmed on my breast, from which he shrank in such distaste, I spurned him in return – he may have been a fifteenth of my size, but it seemed fair at the time. Since that moment we have fought one another with an unrelenting ferocity that I can almost admire. But it must be possible to earn a devotion by testing an antagonism to its very limit, to bring people closer through the very act of pushing them away. Because after three days short of eighteen years, I can finally announce that I am too exhausted and too confused and too lonely to keep fighting, and if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son. He has five grim years left to serve in an adult penitentiary, and I cannot vouch for what will walk out the other side. But in the meantime, there is a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment. The bedspread is plain…and the sheets are clean.” (p. 468)
This is a very unusual description of attachment, bonding and parental commitment, but it is sounds real nevertheless. It fits all we know of resilience (whether of parents or children). And it strips human emotions of veneers, wishful thinking and neat formulations, showing that whatever we mean by love, it is deeper and more rugged, and possibly more common than most formulations and assessments give it credit for.
I warmly commend these books to you, and would value your comments and responses.