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After Phoenix: The absurdity of family life can conquer all Kindle Edition
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It's Christmas, December 1973, and we meet the Jacobs family: lefty hippy parents JJ and Katherine, son Phoenix - just back from his first term at uni, and fifteen year old daughter Penny. Phoenix is overjoyed at having persuaded his parents to get him a motorbike for Christmas. Penny did well out of that too, getting the record player she was desperate for. Cut to New Year's Eve - partytime at the Jacobs house. Phoenix has a fumble with Penny's best friend Jackie - she'll not let Penny know who she did it with. Cut to the New Year - January 1974. Phoenix is dead - his too big helmet slipped, he lost control of his motorbike and hit a van.
Katherine and JJ are catapulted into freefall in their grief. Katherine blames JJ for persuading her to let him have the bike. She can no longer talk to him. JJ responds by giving her the space she appears to want - he retreats into his shed, his home office where he writes his newspaper columns, eventually moving in there completely. It's left to Penny to carry on as normal and look after things, as her parents' relationship gets worse and worse. Then one day Katherine snaps. She realises she needs help and signs herself in to the local psychiatric hospital - it's the beginning of the long road to recovery.
This book is raw. Between Katherine's breakdown and JJ's compassionate yet silent disbelief at what happened, this novel needs the life goes on attitude of teenager Penny to give some breathing space. That's not to say that Penny doesn't feel grieve for her stupid brother Phoenix too. Each of the Jacobs family members has to find a way to deal with it separately before they can begin to come together again. JJ the hermit, throws himself into his work; Katherine gradually restores her sanity; and Penny gets fed up with Jackie, and makes new friends.
I can understand Phoenix's desire for the bike. I got a motorbike in my 20s - but I never told my parents about it until after I'd sold it. It was a cheap and affordable option for independent transport in those days. I can also understand Katherine's reaction and grief. I'm very glad that my daughter will want to learn to drive a car.
With each chapter titled after a pop hit of the day, the period details in After Phoenix were spot on - I remember it well. The regime in the hospital too was horribly as expected, (in the 1970s I used to sing to patients with the Guides at our local one). Despite beginning with a tragedy, this book is never entirely without hope. It's a searing portrait of grief and how time heals. Powerful stuff.
It takes place near Bristol, in the west of England, and against the cultural texture and political turbulence of 1973-74 among glam rock fashion, passion about politics, adults losing all bearings and vital teenagers posturing and making their own mistakes.
As one haphazard human calamity ripples out to upend other lives and relationships, and we see what is made of the broken pieces, the characters' communication (spoken, unspoken and broken down) has a strong role in how they manage. A family nucleus previously held tight by commitment and in-jokes is loosened and drained of energy.
People's reorientation as things transform for them, the workings of guilt and blame, and the 'psychological impact of new things' in life, from pyjamas upwards, are looked at with humour and curiosity. Teenage jokes, preoccupations and alliances forcefully bring those times back to life for the reader. References along the way to plays that matter to the Jacobs couple, like Albee's 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', with some pertinent themes, and many local and contemporary references strengthen the mix.
Grief for many things is here, but less the weighing-down, first-person experience than a sympathetic observer's view of others managing the new.
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What I liked was the story being told from the different perspectives, the mother,...Read more