In Rachel Marks’s new novel, Jake and Emily meet at anger management class. Jake is there because of the frustration he feels trying to deal with his son Alfie. Jake wants to find a way of dealing with Alfie that works, because at the moment every day feels like a battle. He’s also aware that the stress is having a negative effect on his marriage to Jess. Emily probably looks, to most people, like the stereotypical anger management client. With her shaved head and big boots she’s able to give off an aura that clearly says ‘leave me alone’. She’s quiet, doesn’t share much and the main person in her life seems to be her Nan. Surprisingly, especially to Jake, Alfie is the bridge between them.
I found myself grabbed early on by the character of Alfie. I loved his inner monologues that help us understand his outer behaviour – often more than his parents. I had sympathy for their frustration in not having the insight we had into his thinking. His relationship with Emily works because she doesn’t expect anything of him. Jemma and Jake hold resentment about the child they expected to have and although they love Alfie he represents a lot of grief and pain. They are grieving the child they expected and longed for, because their first experiences of parenthood were very different from anyone else they knew. Their baby son was difficult from the beginning, crying all day and night and seemingly inconsolable. Since then he has found it hard to relate to other children, struggled with instructions and waiting for things to happen. He is very angry and frustrated but his parents can’t understand why.
Jemma has taken Alfie to several doctors but they’ve all dismissed his behaviour, leaving Jake and Jess facing the possibility that Alfie is just naughty and they are bad parents. When Jemma leaves I wasn’t surprised, but I was heartbroken for Alfie who simply has no idea why it is difficult to look after him. I thought the author was brilliant at building tension in the scenes where Jemma and Jake are struggling to cope. To them, Alfie seems to have outbursts of anger where he’s destructive and nothing they say or do seems to break through to him. These scenes are contrasted perfectly with Alfie’s inner world where everything he does is completely natural to him and not designed to cause stress. Where his parents see anger, there’s really distress and confusion. It’s like watching people speaking two completely different languages.
We don’t know why Emily is at anger management or why she has shaved her head, but it’s clear when she meets Alfie that the walls she’s built around herself might be about to come down. Jake has no idea why his son gets along with this spiky woman, who he can’t weigh up at all. Faced with needing to return to work, Jake takes a risk and asks Emily to be Alfie’s nanny. The two form a strong bond and Emily finds ways to make life easier such as using a timer for certain tasks and letting some of the smaller things go, such as his after school biscuit. It’s only by accident that Emily sees a programme about a lesser known autistic spectrum disorder called Pathological Demand Avoidance. People with PDA experience extreme anxiety around everyday demands and use strategies to avoid them. They may seem comfortable socially, but actually mask how they feel and often feel more comfortable in role play or pretence. However, when Emily suggests this to Jake he loses his temper. How can someone who has only known Alfie a few weeks understand what’s going on better than him? He feels like a bad parent, and Emily’s research brings back memories of Jess trying to find something ‘wrong’ with their son.
Despite their initial differences, Jake gets to know Emily and see beyond the exterior. He realises that she has been hurt badly at some point in life and that she’s using strategies like her image and drinking to manage everyday life and keep people at bay. He starts to see her as a friend. Emily is surprised by Jake too. She can see he gets it wrong at times, but that he’s really trying his best to be a good dad. I love the way their ideas about each other change and how their friendship helps them view themselves differently too. Emily allows herself to be vulnerable with Archie and then with Jake too. Will her newfound trust in Jake be rewarded or will he let her down like everyone else in in her life?
I wasn’t surprised to learn that the author had experience with PDA in her own son. She has a great understanding of the condition and her ability to get inside the mind of this troubled and scared little boy and put it on the page shows real empathy and skill as a writer. I found myself hoping for the right outcome for him, more than the adults in the story. I did like that Emily starts to put her own life back together towards the end of the novel. It’s not Jake, or even Alfie that ‘rescues’ her. She allows herself to be vulnerable with the whole anger management group and starts to make plans for a new life. There’s a sense she’ll be okay even if they’re not part of that life. Any choice she makes to stay is made on a strong foundation, rather than out of weakness. This is a really great read that shows the power of vulnerability and sharing our weaknesses. The adults in this book are learning to understand each other, in much the same way as they need to learn Alfie’s social language. I fell in love with this complex and misunderstood little boy and his story helped me to understand autism and PDA a lot better. I also think there’s a broader message to take away from the novel. Emily understands Alfie better because she listens and works within his abilities. In a world where we’re quick to judge, both Alfie and Emily teach us to look a bit closer, approach without bias or making comparisons, and meet people where they are instead of where we think they should be.