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Looking death in the eye
by Lucy Scholes September 15, 2017
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In Maggie O’Farrell’s third novel The Distance Between Us, an ill child lying in her hospital bed hears another infant in the corridor outside being chastised. “Be quiet,” says an adult voice. “There’s a little girl dying in there.” At first the child in the bed feels sorry for this dying girl; it’s only after the nurse by her side, “looking cross and strangely ashamed,” swiftly closes the room’s open door that she realises she’s the little girl being talked about. Read O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am — a memoir with a difference, one “told only through near-death experiences” — and you learn this scene didn’t spontaneously spring forth from her imagination, rather it’s a real childhood memory from the time O’Farrell herself lay gravely ill in her own hospital bed, dying — or so the doctors and nurses thought — of encephalitis. Hence her ingenious and original decision to organise the story of her life around brushes with death. It’s a structure many, no doubt, wouldn’t be able to pull off, but O’Farrell’s existence has seemingly been as crammed full with illness, accident and spine-tingling close calls as a character in a death-and-disaster-packed soap opera.

Encephalitis, amoebic dysentery, a botched labour, a run-in with a murderer on a remote hilltop path, robbed at machete-point while travelling in South America; there are some genuinely chilling stories here. So much so, in fact, a handful of the less dramatic chapters can’t help but pale into insignificance by comparison — if she’d leaned an inch further forward into the road the speeding truck would have decapitated her; if her feet hadn’t found solid ground at the precise moment they did she wouldn’t have had the strength to go on swimming — ending somewhat abruptly. This “string of moments” — at best “snatches of a life” — never promised to be a complete autobiography though. Collected here together, however, they’re a rich celebration of every breath O’Farrell’s taken.

by Gabriel Tallent

On a rare page or two in My Absolute Darling, this brutal, brilliant debut novel by the young American writer Gabriel Tallent, something good happens, and the reader takes a ragged breath, afraid to trust it. And that’s the point, for that tension helps us feel what the book’s gritty protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, experiences every moment as she navigates a lonely adolescence in an isolated, rat-infested house on the wild Pacific coastline in California’s Mendocino County. Reading this book is like watching an electrical storm, both beautiful and dangerous. Works of fiction about child abuse, such as this book, can be excruciatingly hard on a reader, even when they are admirable as literature. My Absolute Darling is worth it, with fragile tendrils of beauty and hope tenaciously emerging here and there in the gothic web the story weaves. There’s a faint sense that Turtle will survive, despite profound damage. Her story is mesmerising, though occasionally unbearable. May the aptly named Tallent tell us many more.

by John Boyne

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a big, sweeping novel, the epic story of one man’s life. It takes on social issues and pivotal moments in Irish history as it follows the life of one Cyril Avery, a Pip-like orphan raised by indifferent adoptive parents and forced to make his own way in a very difficult world. Cyril, who narrates the book, is wry, observant and funny, and it is his voice that gets us through what are sometimes horrific events. The book’s main theme is the Catholic church — its hypocrisy and its power over people’s lives in post-World War II Ireland. That Boyne tackles such a serious issue with great storytelling and humour is to his immense credit; much of the book is very, very funny. And much of it is tragic. The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a brilliant, moving history of an Irishman, and of modern Ireland itself.

by Andrew Solomon

Published in 2012, Far From the Tree won many honours for its seriously researched exploration of how families raised children with disabilities and differences, including deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome and autism. Now Simon & Schuster has published a young-adult edition of Solomon’s valuable book. Solomon comes to this subject with both experience and compassion. He grew up with two strong differences from his parents. In each chapter, he draws on detailed interviews with parents and children (those who are able to speak) and sifts research and data to portray the challenges families face and the emotional rewards they may enjoy. He is honest and particularly good at examining situations where distinctions between disability and identity are hard to define or may be in dispute.

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