This is a book about a brother and a sister.
It’s a book about childhood and growing up, friendships and families, triumph and tragedy and everything in between.
More than anything, it’s a book about love in all its forms.
There is something about this read, and while that something is both unique and charming, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what that something is which holds the novel together almost seamlessly, while at the same time keeping the plot simple and familiar. Elly, our protagonist, recounts the story of her life from early childhood, interweaving her unfailing connection with her elder brother Joe through a series of hilarious and heart-rendering events, which shape her life and who she is. Along side these two strange adventurers are a cast of weird and wonderful, and often tragic characters, with the kind of odd fictional familiarity that makes a reader feel like they live next-door. Winman introduces a simplistic language, using the logic and perspective of a child to spin together a network of adult themes, and she does so wonderfully; the story shies away from nothing, stabbing at the heart of how ugly childhood can be, and how haunting experiences can drive who a person becomes. Religion, child-abuse, sex, and kidnapping are all investigated, in ways that are both frank, and surprisingly humanising. This isn’t a dreamland portrayal of youth, this is probably what most of us remember our childhoods to be, full of questions, yearning, sexual experimentation, and a delusional sense of justice.
The story takes place over two established time periods, taking the consequences of childhood experience from the first section of the story starting 1968, through to adulthood as of 1995, exploring the dynamic of a brother and the sister he essentially raised, expanding on the common ideals about what a family unit is, and the events that either bind people or ultimately rip them apart. Characters really come into their own during this transformation; with a gay film-star in love with a married woman, to an old-man convinced he knows exactly how and when he’ll die, we watch the progression of relationship ties in many glorious forms. Some of these links are a tad romanticized, with character reappearances becoming a little predictable during the second half, and interfering with the more important aspects of what is going on. I loved each character and the individual strings entwined in their different relationships, how these were shown to be both real and often detrimental.
Towards the very end, the plot does drag itself out too long with a plot twist which was both cheap and infuriating, and while I was able to see the meaning behind what Winman had done, I couldn’t help but think there was a better way to do it. Of course, this doesn’t spoil the overall power of the book, nor the emotion backing it, but it does hinder the plot flow. Winman also has an annoying habit of using ‘she’ or ‘he’ for sustained periods, making for a confusing game of ‘okay-who-are-we-talking-about’, and her story alludes to events, but doesn’t quite solidify them. For example, older Elly has a serious experience with an ex-boyfriend which affects her ability to formulate new relationships, unfortunately, we’re never told what or why this is. I’m good with narrative encouraging the imagination of a readership, however, I cared so much for Elly I really wanted to relate to her personal experience, and without at least some of the facts I couldn’t do this. It’s not a common occurrence during the story, but it did stick out for me personally.
This is a throughly enjoyable read about the way life can often be, and speaks volumes about society and family, and exactly what those words may or may-not mean. While being painfully blunt and unforgiving, the plot is also warm and significant, and tugs at parts of memory everyone can find some understanding, or compassion for. Spanning four decades, this story will take you on a journey of a brother who loves his sister, and a sister who needs her brother, and the world and the people they build around themselves, and just how far secrets can carry us. You’ll never have read anything with the something this book has.