|Jan/Feb 2001 Book Reviews|
Picador, PanMacmillan (Nov. 2000) 384 pages
ISBN: 0 330 36235 6
"What is nameless in childhood, no matter how strange or terrifying, can often be tolerated, even nurtured, because there are no points of reference with which to align fear or danger. My headlights, and the sounds that began to accompany them shortly after I was born, became a source of constant amazement, even pleasure."
James Malloy's parents knew that he was a strange and seemingly wayward child but they had no idea that there was anything seriously wrong. And James himself could not explain the lights and colours inside his head, or the voices and thoughts which sometimes slipped from his mouth. Others told him what he had said but often he did not believe them.
Even as he grew to understand that he was somehow different, he did not know how or why until the day he played truant from school and found himself following a woman home from the railway station. She, too, seemed to say things without knowing it and James desperately wanted to speak to her.
From this casual encounter came some knowledge and comfort, and many other things beside.
Stephanie, the woman James followed home and persuaded to talk to him, becomes immensely important in his life. She befriends him briefly then vanishes, leaving him only a book of photographs of Ireland, a poetry book and a poem. But by this time she has given him a name for his condition, which she shares. Schizophrenia: "Two people in the same body...two people who share the same breath, light, smoke, drink, terrible thoughts and dreaming," is how she describes it. She insists that he tell his parents that he needs professional help, and, most importantly, she persuades him to write down the things he experiences inside his head.
I have no idea whether Anthony Lawrence has direct experience of schizophrenia, and no idea if what he describes of it is real or imaginary. But this does not matter, because the way he tells the story of James's young life has an immediacy which makes it feel wholly authentic.This is a remarkably accomplished first novel, and Lawrence has a poet's ear for the rhythm of language and a poetic ability to convey thoughts, feelings and emotions with powerful directness.
James comes across as a likeable young man who, most of the time, leads a fairly normal life amongst friends acknowledge and accept his difference. And, although the 'headlights' and voices which sometimes disrupt his metal equilibrium are a problem (which James can generally control with medication), they are also vivid experiences which feed his imagination and his writing. He comes to value them for this.
So, James tells his own story. And his growth to adulthood is both common and unique, as are all our stories. He sees the effects of his own problem on each of his parents: his father's difficulty in accepting that his son need psychiatric help; his mother's puzzlement overcome by her love and her desire to help him. He sees their marital difficulties and the confused emotions of two people who love each other but have grown apart, and he forges new relationships with each of them. He runs away from home to live in the bush and meets an odd loner who teaches him about fish and persuades him to return home. And he has his own experiences of growing up, love and loss to deal with. When the shock of an unexpected death tips him over into madness which, for a time, no medication will help, James's description of this time is as strange and disturbing as such experiences must truly be.
James's recovery, his subsequent journey to Ireland to search for Stephanie, and the forging of new friendships and a new life, are skillfully told, but this was the only part of the book in which I felt some authorial loss of direction. James's story became almost too authentic, too full of touristic novelty and irrelevant detail, and the thread of action loosened (as it often does in real life). The dramatic ending wove it all back into place with, at the last, a not altogether unsignalled neatness leaving James and the reader to a hopeful but predictably troubled future. But, on the whole, growing up with James was an interesting, moving and curious experience. And Lawrence is good, too, at bringing even the most fleeting of his characters to life.
In all, Anthony Lawrence has written a very readable and unusual book. His name is one which I certainly intend to remember and I hope to see more of his writing in the future.