A fam­ily torn apart by men­tal ill­ness

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - Adam Haslett Pen­guin, £8.99 Re­view: Alas­tair Mab­bott

SHORT­LISTED for the 2016 Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle Award for Fic­tion, Imag­ine Me Gone seems to have been oth­er­wise over­looked in the awards stakes; un­justly so, be­cause it’s a sub­stan­tial and se­ri­ous novel that ex­plores to pow­er­ful ef­fect the dy­namic of a dys­func­tional fam­ily.

In the early 1960s, John, from a re­pressed mid­dle class English fam­ily, mar­ries Mar­garet, an Amer­i­can wo­man who is far more in touch with her feel­ings than he has been raised to be­lieve is de­cent. But John’s prob­lems run far deeper than sim­ply re­press­ing his emo­tions. He is pe­ri­od­i­cally laid low by de­pres­sion, which some­times re­sults in hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion and makes it hard to hold down a job. While rais­ing three kids, John and Mar­garet cross the At­lantic three times chas­ing jobs that never last. They’ve set­tled, fi­nally, near Bos­ton.

So thor­ough is Haslett’s ground­work in es­tab­lish­ing his char­ac­ters in the first quar­ter of the book that it could al­most work as a stand-alone novella by it­self. A se­ries of first-per­son chap­ters not only sets up the fam­ily mem­bers and their re­la­tion­ships to each other but re­flects the sub­tle shift­ing per­spec­tives of chil­dren grow­ing into young adult­hood. Haslett keeps us wait­ing a long time be­fore we at last hear from John him­self, just be­fore he checks out for­ever, his strug­gle with the “mon­ster” in­side him com­ing to a bleak and tragic end.

And even if the first 100 pages do a lot of heavy lift­ing, Haslett doesn’t coast from there on in. With John’s pass­ing, the fam­ily’s fo­cus falls on his el­dest child, Michael, first seen as a pre­co­cious young boy with a wicked and funny imag­i­na­tion and a vo­cab­u­lary to match. In adult­hood, though, he’s crip­pled by anx­i­ety, con­stantly ex­per­i­ment­ing with med­i­ca­tions and sur­viv­ing on hand­outs from his mother, Mar­garet. He dom­i­nates the nar­ra­tive the way his sit­u­a­tion dom­i­nates the fam­ily. A disco and funk ob­ses­sive, he feels his true call­ing is to read African-Amer­i­can Stud­ies at grad school. As a keen reader of fem­i­nist lit­er­a­ture, he’s at­tracted to black women but feels guilty about hav­ing sex with them. Some of the novel’s finest pas­sages come when we see Michael’s hyper­ac­tive brain in ac­tion, ob­ses­sively ex­pound­ing on his favourite top­ics while his life de­te­ri­o­rates around him.

With their shared guilt over what hap­pened to his fa­ther, the rest of the fam­ily rally around him, but their decades-long obli­ga­tion to pro­tect him is fray­ing them all round the edges.

His brother, Alec, a po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist, falls in love but feels guilty about it be­cause Michael is on his own. Sis­ter Celia, whose day job is to coun­sel so­ci­ety’s un­for­tu­nate left-be­hinds, can’t bring her­self to treat Michael like one of her clients and lashes out at Alec’s ex­pres­sions of con­cern.

In an in­tense study of a fam­ily who have been made “for­eign” to each other by men­tal ill­ness, Haslett has the abil­ity to make their hard-won lessons feel like his own.

Imag­ine Me Gone is the kind of book that can only come into be­ing when keen and per­cep­tive ob­ser­va­tion of one’s fel­low hu­man be­ings is al­lied with deep com­pas­sion.

Imag­ine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett, is a sub­stan­tial and se­ri­ous novel that ex­plores to pow­er­ful ef­fect the dy­namic of a dys­func­tional fam­ily

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