Looking on at life, rather than wrestling with it
Neels Robbins and his wife June, twenty years younger, are both like relicts of the sixties: teachers, suffused with the ideals of A.S. Neill, and, in Neels’ case in particular, a strong belief in the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly in the educational field.
The title of the book is from Rousseau’s Emile: a treatise on education:
Let there be no book but the world
Experience itself is to be the teacher, and the child – a kind of noble savage, with innate and inherent goodness and humanity – is not to have its potential confined, restrained, restricted by the strait-jacket of formal education.
Neels sets up a school and a community to further these ideals. June is a teacher at that school. They have two children, Ava and Fred.
However, even within the community of children and adults who are allowed to be free to express themselves without restriction, and who might be considered to be eccentrics by the 9-5 society, Frederick is strange. Very strange, disturbed and disturbing. Labelling with a diagnosis, and, having labelled, treating, is counter to Neels’ philosophies, as it implies a judgement on Fred’s strangeness as wrong. Had he been diagnosed, his symptoms would most probably have put him somewhere on the autistic spectrum
Ava is more ‘normal’ and indeed, yearns for a more normal childhood, a more normal school, to Neels’ annoyance and disappointment. But she too has a kind of disenganged, dissociative quality to her nature. As do both her charismatic father and her less-hard-line in view mother.
Twenty years after the childhood experience, which might be seen, by some (Neels’ view) as having been idyllic, but might be seen by others (and this, at times, is Ava’s view) as having not served them that well, not helped them to fit into the world and into relationships with others, Neels and June have died, through illness and old age. Fred and Ava drifted away from contact with each other.
In fact, Fred has become a drifter, a loner, earning his living here and there in unskilled labour. Ava is a peripatetic music teacher, ‘The Singalong lady’, and is married to Dennis, the brother of her closest, her only, childhood friend Kitty.
And the story begins thus: Fred is arrested in connection with the disappearance, and later death, of a young boy. It seems likely that Fred kidnapped the boy, and, once his body is discovered, possible that Fred killed him
Ava, in first person narration, sets out in shock on a journey both actual and in memory, to try and understand what has happened. Everything she knows about Fred tells her he cannot be a murderer. She believes he is innocent – but, if he isn’t, who is responsible for what he has become? Are her parents, particularly her father, to blame? How responsible is Ava herself, for not taking sufficient care of a younger brother difficult to love?
Other strands of the story are told as from the point of view of her husband Dennis, from Kitty her best friend and sister in law, now a therapist, and, finally from Freddy himself
This is a slowly unfolding, very thoughtful book, and if some of the events are hinted at, signalled, – and some are surprising and shocking, it is more an exploration of understanding (for Ava) and a series of further reflective questions, not always answered, for Ava and for the reader.
Cohen writes carefully, reflectively and well, and I settled in with interest and absorption to this book as it deepened and revealed itself.
This was a very satisfying read, though something about it meant it is a book I enjoyed, a lot, but was not in the end unstoppably grabbed by.
The reason for this lies in the fact that all the central characters have this sense of detachment, observation rather than engagement, in the worlds they live in. As I haven’t read any other books by Cohen, I don’t know if this is a symptom of her writing more generally, or specific to this book only.
I am most engaged by those writers who can not only credibly show me other lives, and make me understand them and be interested in them, as Cohen absolutely does, but can do this not by a mere observation of those other lives, but, somehow, by getting me to inhabit them. Because that is where their own writing springs from, a kind of inside of the other empathy, rather than a dispassionate, more aloof observation.
Cohen’s characters, are all observers rather than inhabiters, with the possible exception of Kitty,
Sometimes the very good book but the book which is unable to engulf, surround and submerge the reader entirely into itself, is really a useful experience in telling the reader about themselves, and their own tastes. I had precisely the reaction from another writer whom I normally adore, Damon Galgut, but, in his book about E.M.Forster Arctic Summer, found that the combination of a writer who has a certain ‘holding at arm’s length’ quality in his writing, about another writer who also held himself, for many reasons, in some distance from his world, some kind of hiding of self, was a kind of double distance. A distancing too far.
I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK