Once you’ve got over the fact that this isn’t a sinister title in terms of today’s worries about child abuse, you discover that this is, in fact, more of a study in spousal neglect and the emotional-relational issues that arise when a husband and father lives with his head in the clouds. For all that, this is a pretty down to earth novel which, for me, started a bit too slowly.
There’s really nothing I can add to a review of this book that hasn’t already been written in Jonathan Franzen’s wonderful review… except, that is, what I thought of it and how it related to me, so that’s where I’ll focus. I should say at the outset that I do have a father who loves children. There were times in the novel when I was also reminded of my father’s idealism and how it affected our family for both good and bad. It made me realise that, in comparison, we got off lightly.
Stead has created a character primarily for her own catharsis but also for the very beneficial catharsis of anyone who has grown up a victim to a father’s untrammelled passions. For that, it should be more widely read because I’m sure that there are plenty of people out there who would relate and find voice to their hurts in the pleas of wife Henny and eldest daughter Louie.
While I found the prose to be a bit tedious at times (I’m not a fan of lengthy narratives in some childish argot about nothing around the dinner table), the strength of the characters more than makes up for this. I found my sympathies lying most with the eldest girl (I’m an eldest boy) and can very much relate to her decision at the end of the novel.
By that point, I was so nauseated by Sam Pollit, I was glad, like her, to see the back of him and the whole crumbling edifice they called “home.” This novel showed me that there are far worse fates than to lose your family by being sent overseas to boarding school from the age of 11 and, for that, I’m grateful I’ve read it.