Sunday, 27 February 2011

"The Lost Child" by Julie Myerson

This book raised a media firestorm when it was published a couple of years ago.  The author was widely reviled for writing about her own child in excruciating detail and honesty.  She and her husband were interviewed on TV and asked whether they thought it  was right to expose a living family member (and an immature one at that, who has a long way to go in life with this burden hanging over him) to public scrutiny in this way.  The gist of their response was, that, upsetting as it was, it was important to tell the truth about drug addiction within a nice middle-class family, including the effects on the child himself and the immediate family circle.  A further scandal was roused by the fact that the nice middle-class parents threw the child out of the family home. This was after his addiction became too damaging to the younger children, and his aggressive teenage attitude (recognisable to all parents of teenagers) moved one step further into violence.

At the time, I vowed not to buy the book, deeming that to contribute to coffers swelled by a public display of private misery was unethical.

I did, however hint to fellow-bloggers discussing the topic that I would not be above borrowing it from a library in due course.  This I have now done.

I've read several books by JM and this is her best so far. Her fiction, whilst readable and persuasive, always has an undertone of forced articifice.  Now you might say, that's fiction, but it works best if you are not aware of the fake.  It feels like she said to herself, "Oh, I have a holiday home in Southwold, so I'll set a story in Southwold."  Or, "I feel like a trip to Paris, so I'll go there, pick up some local vibe on expenses, and start a story about it."

Her best work to date, I thought, was "Home" in which she researched "The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House."  Some of the visits to record offices did become too detailed, and more severe editing would have been beneficial, but generally the story flew.  Where it really took off, and you just wanted to know more and more, was when the author extrapolated from the known facts and imagined more details, and events that might have happened.  Clearly this is her gift.

In "The Lost Child" the premise is that JM is asked to research and write about a young girl of the early 19th century, who died too young of tuberculosis, like many others in her family.  This time, however, the story never takes off.  Julie dutifully spends time sifting though boxes, uncovering documents in record offices and searching for inscriptions in graveyards.  However, her mind is always on the state of her own eldest son, on his descent from a bright and helpful young teenager to a surly sloth, and further down still to enslavement by a 21st century scourge - drug-taking.  This story takes over until the original theme fades into an almost superfluous backdrop. 

Her son's picture appears in "Home" as an adored new-born in the arms of an "ecstatic" father, as a toddler "blonde and dimpled and dungareed", under the eerily prescient words "Where did that small child go?"

Did Julie tempt fate?

Or was there something the family could have done differently?  Far be it from me to judge.  The reader is swept along in the narrative of the author's own lost child, all the time wondering how the book could possibly end. 

That's probably a question I am still asking.  What HAS happened to Jake now?  Did the spotlight that fell on him at eighteen redeem him from the crooked path he was following?  Did he stick out the college course he enrolled for, and was he welcomed back into the family home?  How are the parents coping now, with whatever has developed since his mother's final page?

Julie always wrote from the heart, or appeared to, in this book.  The only time she stepped back into discretion was when she described the process of helping her son's former "girlfriend" to abort her possible grandchild.  She was able to achieve remarkable detachment on that score, possibly for legal reasons.  So I totally believed that she was writing verbatim when she reported the conversation with Jake after he read the book.  He came across as remarkably rational and capable of analysing the situation dispassionately. "There is hope for this young man," I thought as I turned the final page. I hope I'm not wrong.

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