Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Remember me like this, by Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin Campbell has been missing from his home in Southern Texas for four years.  He was twelve years old when he disappeared, and as time passes and public interest has waned along with police involvement, his family still  continue the search;  to hope for sightings, clues – anything to prove that he is still alive:  they resolutely carry the flickering torch of belief that one day he will return, for the alternative is too awful to face.
In the meantime everyone survives as best they can.  Justin’s father Eric is a history teacher at the local high school.  He is having an affair that does little to make him feel like a man. 
Justin’s mother Laura works at a Drycleaner’s but also volunteers for extra shifts at a Marine Lab that cares for a sick dolphin.  The hours she spends observing the mammal afford her some solitary peace of a sort – she can’t sleep anyway, so it gives her a fleeting satisfaction to feel necessary to the survival of a beautiful animal:  how she wishes her family could count on her in the same way.
Griff, Justin’s younger brother is fourteen now and has never really reconciled himself to being the Only Child.  He is a good, loving boy with typical teenage hopes and dreams, not least being an ace skateboarder (he’s getting there fast!) and the prospect of romance with Fiona, she who dresses only in black and has dyed her hair green.  Life looks good – if only Griff could forget that he had a massive fight with Justin on the day he disappeared, causing Griff to think that if Justin hadn’t left the house in a huff, their loving and secure family life wouldn’t have disappeared with him.  Everything is Griff’s fault!
In short (Mein Gott, when have I ever been short!!) the Campbells are broken by the tragedy of Justin’s disappearance.  They may never recover.  Until……  until ….. Justin is found.
Recognised by a lady at a fleamarket from whom he bought mice to feed his pet snake.  The police are called, his ‘companion’ is taken into custody and the Campbells are given the news, news they hardly dare to hope is true – but it is.  Their wildest dreams and prayers have been answered.  Justin has come home.
And therein lies a whole new set of problems:  how can they help him?  What can they ask him? What must they remain silent about?  And what will happen to Dwight Buford, his kidnapper? 
Bret Anthony Johnston has written a family saga which is Shakespearean in its breadth.  In shimmering, beautiful prose he recounts the cruelty and ugliness of human behaviour by characters that are all too credible, and oh, how effortlessly he ensnares the reader into the sadness and frustrations suffered by every member of an innocent family.  This book is a heartbreaker, but a masterly tribute to the endurance of familial love in the face of impossible adversity.  Most highly recommended.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle
So who hasn’t read Roddy Doyle’s marvellous ‘Barrytown’ trilogy?  I have to say that if you haven’t read it, do so now:  if you don’t you are missing a singular experience – ‘The Commitments’ was the first of three by this wonderful Irish author, and it was made into a smash hit film in the 90s – and the continuing story hasn’t dated a second:  great humour never goes out of style, even in this instance when bowel cancer rears its evil head.
Jimmy Rabbite, manager of ‘the Commitments’, has grown up.  He has reached his late 40s and has a wife and four children whom he adores;  he has a great job researching contemporary music;  he gets on well with his parents and all should be well – ‘everything’s grand’ - until he receives a diagnosis of bowel cancer. 
How could this happen?  How can this be?  Cancer attacks other people, not Jimmy Rabbite, and Mr Doyle takes some time to describe the effect of Jimmy’s killer disease on his wife and family – and himself, in empathetic terms so intuitive that this reader wondered if he had experienced just such a crisis. 
On his journey through surgery, chemotherapy and self-examination, Jimmy encounters two ex-band members from The Commitments: the beautiful Imelda Quirke whom everyone hoped (and still does) to seduce;  and Outspan, alias Liam, rhythm guitarist and now terminally ill with lung cancer.  It’s amazing who you meet these days while you’re getting the chemo!  (Could I have that with ice and a slice of lemon please?  The nurse, jaded and past humour says ‘We’ve a character here!’).
Yes, Roddy Doyle can make even imminent death seem funny, which proves my long-held belief that humour is an absolutely vital weapon with which to fight all the shite that life dishes up to even the most virtuous:  Outspan refuses to die, especially when Jimmy asks him to come with him to a huge rock festival – he’s going to be there and listen to all those shite bands, even if he breathes his last (with the aid of his oxy bottle).  Ah, I tell you, he’s having a grand time and so is Jimmy:  cancer isn’t going to rock their world, only the music.
Mr Doyle has created a bravura blend of tragedy and comedy;  his characters are wonderful, not least Jimmy’s parents, who eventually drove Jimmy out of home at the age of twenty-two by playing Richard Clayderman incessantly until he left – Jimmy’s Da disclosed this disgraceful behaviour twenty five years later, revealing also that he was ready to leave home himself if he had to listen to ‘Ballade Pour Adeline’ once more, (the traitor – he used to hum along to it!) and when an outraged Jimmy demanded to know why they wanted him to leave, Da said it was because ‘yez was an insufferable little prick’ at the time.  Fair enough.  This from a man who had a picture of the Pope on his wall, and another of Elvis just below it.  Your man had his priorities right!
This is a grand book, so.  Don’t miss it.         


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