Top critical review
25 people found this helpful
Best Irving since The Cider House Rules?
on 9 September 2005
John Irving's longest work to date tells the story of Jack Burns. His mother is a tattoist and his father an organist, addicted to music tattoos. It begins with Jack's recollections of his travels through northern Europe with his mother at the age of 4 in search of his absent father. In a strange mixture of hotels, tattoo shops and churches Irving paints a picture of Jack's early life and his perception of his parents. Jack and his mother apparently give up the trail and settle down in Canada with no sign of his absent father.
He attends an all-girls school which has just admitted its first boys and meets Emma Oastler, an older girl, who will become his closest friend. Even at an early age, his life is dominated by older women and Jack suffers abuse in a variety of ways. He finds his niche, acting in school drama productions, particularly excelling in female roles. Sent away to boarding school in the States, Jack feels rejected not only by his father but also his mother. Unable to find a lasting relationship, he moves to LA and eventually gets a break in acting.
Then two tragedies strike Jack's life. Bit by bit, Jack starts to piece together his past. He returns to Europe and discovers that the world is not always as it seems to a four year-old boy.
Irving has created a host of dysfunctional characters, with whom I am pleased to say I could sympathise. For me, this was a great improvement on A Widow For One Year. Despite its air of sadness, the author's usual wit and humour are as strong as usual. The story of Jack Burns in some ways reflects Irving's own personal life and although, he changed the narrative from first to third person, it is this personal connnection which makes it a very poignant novel; perhaps his best work for a number of years.