27 March 2008

An unhappy childhood is no excuse for being evil

I checked Justin Evan's A Good and Happy Child out from my local library as the book had my name on it. Really, it did - across the aisle I saw "EVA" stickered on the spine along with the Dewey Decimal number, so I decided to take a look. The cover engaged me immediately with its Hieronymus Bosch-like artwork. The story itself needed no fancy wrapper to keep my attention though; I read it as often as I could, squeezing in reading time between chores and work in order to finish as soon as I could. (In fact, this book never even made it into a my Bookmark Parking area on my blog.) Justin Evans writes on his website:
Unless you’re braver than I am, you’ll be at least a little spooked to read the raw material that inspired A GOOD AND HAPPY CHILD.

I quite agree. The book starts off innocently enough, seeming to me a blend of bildungsroman or coming of age story through the plot device of an adult re-examining his childhood as part of a psychological counseling process. Unexpectedly, this reminded me of Judy Blume's pre-teen novel Tiger Eyes, wherein the protagonist has to reconcile grief, hero-worship and the reality of a father's humanity in the midst of their own life changes. The similarity ends with that though; once the child's innocence in confronting death is firmly established, the plot takes a supernatural/psychiatric turn for the weird and wild.

The story follows two tracks: in present-time, the adult is seeking to resolve marital and parenting issues that are fracturing his carefully constructed life following the birth of his son. In his journals, a second story unfolds revealing the traumatic events of his childhood, which if not repressed, have been put so far out of his everyday thinking as to be nearly unremembered. The present-time story is heartrending, as the reader goes through the pain and powerlessness the protagonist feels in trying to face and master his issues. The journaled story line is horrific, and kept me guessing as to what was truth and what was symptomatic of a psychiatric issue, or what mix of the two was involved.

Threaded through the storyline is George's epistemological difficulty, as an adult and as a child, in sorting through his sensory impressions and the views of the people around him as to what is the truth and what is the nature of the world in which he lives. Any child must at some point reconcile different, and sometimes competing views from authority figures offering explanation of How The World Works. The child George takes this to a terribly difficult level, though, trying to recognize his mother's sensibilities with those of his father (as represented by his father's friends). The adult George must similarly painfully struggle with his psychiatrist's views in opposition to the evidence of his senses and his memories.

Enjoy this book at your own risk; and read Justin Evan's website... unless you are not as brave as I, and can't bear to be spooked.