In the famous words of Phillip Larkin, ‘they fuck you up your Mum and Dad’. Reading this book was a very interesting experience and patience definitely paid off. Had I given in to my impulses and thrown the book down in frustration during the first part, I would have missed out on a great read. The story of three brothers over their lifetimes is compelling, interesting and a great study in how mental health difficulties can be passed on from one generation to the next.
The structure of the novel is what I had difficulty with at first. The first section was narrated by the eldest brother, Will. Written in short chapters, slipping between decades, we see aspects of his childhood through to the present day where he is a successful movie producer. He meets his wife Kate through his brother Brian,when she’s brought to a family dinner. They have a little girl called Daisy, but Will is much more focused on work than he is his family. We get the sense that Kate is a long suffering woman who gets more support from Brian, who is now Daisy godfather. Brian is there for the birthdays and school concerts and Daisy has a great rapport with her Uncle. Will is dismissive of Brian and his lack of ambition. He is also dismissive of Luke, despite Luke’s success as a pop star in his late teens. He is close to his Mum and through flashbacks we see she favours him, quite openly.
Luke, by contrast, really gets the brunt of their mother’s moods. He is the youngest, the weakest, but soon finds success as a pop star. However, in the later fragments of his life he has times of struggle, where his mental health is poor and he turns to drink or experiments with drugs. He is an unusual child with a religious fixation to the extent where the family priest thinks he has a vocation! The other boys use his goodness against him, it gets them extra food and attention. There are moments where it seems his life is on track and he could be happy, but others where I wondered if he was just not meant for this world.
Finally, there’s Brian the middle brother. If Will is his Mum’s favourite and Luke is doted on by his Dad, it leaves nobody for Brian. He does seem fatally dragged between the two of them. Will is very dismissive of him, even though Brian does so much for his niece. He’s not grateful that Brian stands in for him or that he looks after Luke when his mental health deteriorates. In fact their relationship becomes so destructive that other family members get caught in the crossfire.
The genius of this book is its structure. During the first part, narrated by Will, I was ready to put the book down. I couldn’t stand him. He was arrogant, self-centred and treats women appallingly. If the whole book had been his viewpoint I might have thrown it out of the window. Just when I was at the point of giving up, I saw Luke’s name across the next section and it was such a relief. As the tale goes back and forth in time and perspective we see a tiny bit more of the whole. At a Bob Dylan concert at a local castle, Will ends up in a fight and is taken to hospital with Dad and Luke following. Mum is left behind at the castle and doesn’t arrive at the hospital till late. However, through Luke’s story we learn that something terrible happened to her, something that explains so much about how she behaves. When we finally get Brian’s section we see what a lifetime of being in the middle feels like. Overlooked, unconsidered and brushed aside. We find out things we already suspected and other things that surprise and enlighten us. Every single strand of this novel teaches us that we are only ever a small part of the picture and we must step back to see the whole.
This brings me to the second line of Larkin’s poem, which is the best; ‘they do not mean to but they do’. There are parts of this novel, particularly the way Dad behaves, where genuine mistakes are made and misunderstandings occur in the same way they do with any family. However there are other situations where the damage seems deliberate, especially in their mother’s attitude to Luke, Will’s intervention in Luke’s relationship, and in the treatment of Will’s daughter Daisy towards the end of the novel. These acts are more than little cruelties. They are deliberately causing lifelong psychological disturbance. This is a complex and interesting novel that moves from one narrow perspective to give us all the pieces of the emotional jigsaw puzzle that makes up this family.