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Micka Paperback – 2 Jul 2010
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'Micka turns ten at the start of the grim, gripping debut novel, but it is a far from happy birthday...It is difficult to recommend enthusiastically such a distressing book, but readers who are willing to engage with such brutal material will discover a writer of real talent.' --The Times
'This novel contains some of the funniest observations of of adult nonsense and one of the most graphic and distrubing scenes you are ever likely to read, imparted through the deadpan narration of children...We watch with a growing sense of dread as the story accelerates unstoppably towards what we knew from the start would not be a happy ending. Stunning.' --WBQ
'a brutal and brilliant debut...Micka is unsentimentally grimy in its depiction of the inner life of your average juvenile delinquent and packs a terrific wallop.' --Hot Press
'Playwright Frances Kay's first novel comes deservedly adorned with praise by Anne Enright and Carol Gebler . . . despite of the grim subject matter, Mickas is never hard to read, largely because of the distinctive voices Kay finds for her two protagonists, and the skill which she folds a supernatural element into her otherwise naturalistic tale.' --Financial Times
'This pulverising account of two boys and the dire consequences of casual neglect seems familiar, but is superbly articulated . . . The book's brutality is sickening in places, yet each voice is distinct and matter-of fact, the imagery lucid, spare and uncompromising.' -- Guardian
'Dark, shocking and beautifully written, this is a story that will imprint itself on your memory.' -- Take a Break Fiction Feast
'Frances Kay's first novel is a searing, uncompromising story about the deprived, neglected child, 10 year-old Micka. It left me enraged and tearful, the first time I've cried on finishing a book since Black Beauty.' -- Irish Examiner
Sometimes, you only know you’ve crossed the line when it’s too late . . .See all Product description
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I'm not sure anyone could really claim to have enjoyed this book: there is nothing pleasurable about it at all, but that is wholly due to content and not a reflection on the writing. That said, it was nowhere near as dark as I had anticipated from the reviews (or maybe I am just horrifically jaded).
A tale of two damaged children and the consequences of the relationship they forge, the book is named for Micka and even though Laurie has an equal voice throughout, it is Micka's story and though that is what gives it its impact, it is also where I think it failed to a degree. Both of these are children disturbed by their upbringing but we are left in no doubt that our sympathies should sit with Micka. We are given insights into their respective home lives through their own words and Micka's is not only so full of the stuff of nightmare, but related so matter-of-factly due to the fact that neglect and abuse are his normality, that the idea that he is a kid turned bad by circumstance could not be driven home any harder. Then we have Laurie, whose complaints about his parents tend to sound more like the petulant whining of a spoilt child, and who is established from outset as being violent, unpleasant, and a competent liar, leading us to question his narrative anyway. He is also less fleshed out/far more one dimensional than Micka. Just as we are very clearly meant to regard Micka with sympathy, we are equally clearly meant to have none for Laurie. That is essentially a failing in the author: if Micka is truly a victim and Laurie truly the evil puppet master, we should be able to ascertain it for ourselves; we do not need to be so determinedly smacked over the head with the fact.
That said, it's a good book. I just think it could have been so much better though. At the end I felt like I had just got to the point at which the real story should begin. It felt as if I had read the rough outline of something that I wanted more of. Had it instead started at the point that 20 yr old Micka is reading the letter from Paula and then looked back over the path that had led him there, delving far more deeply into the psychology of both boys, it could have been truly exceptional.
Would I recommend this? I don't know. It is so dark and unhappy that it simply cannot be a pleasure in the way reading should be. However, despite some failings I thought it was really well written and in particular, although obvious manipulation, Micka's voice is superb. I would certainly be willing to pick up anything else she writes in the future which is, I think, as close to a recommendation of this that the subject matter will allow me to make.
Micka, just ten, lives on a rough housing estate, and is subject to physical and sexual abuse. Outwardly, Laurie has no such problems but, after his parents separate, his mother becomes unbalanced, resentful of an ambitious, self-absorbed father.
Micka is the product of a violent family, two damaged elder brothers, a dysfunctional single mother, a dying uncle and an Irish grandmother whom he loves. She is one of the few sympathetic characters in the book but returns to Ireland very early on. Micka lacks an outdoor coat, is permanently hungry and is desperate for affection. He brings home a damaged pup from a nearby travellers’ camp in the hope that he will have a new friend – but life is not that easy. Micka soon abuses the puppy, hits him to keep him quiet stop biting, and shuts him up without knowing what food to give him. The parallels between puppy and boy are obvious. These circumstances are at odds with his natural, youthful optimism.
Micka is dominated by Laurie, who becomes the pawn between his parents hostility. No other members of his extended family seem to have any interest in the boy who is clearly very bright – he has the idea to create new kinds of fruit by grafting apple and lemon seeds. Laurie’s father tells his son about the separation ‘Your mother and I have decided after a great deal of thought, that this is a civilized arrangement and therefore the best option for us all.’ As a Christmas present he gives Laurie a set of encyclopedias to read which he devours. Laurie is the more disturbing of the two boys, being manipulative and calculating, blurring the boundaries of imagination and reality.
Kay manages to integrate elements of real humour into her bleak story. Laurie’s hold over Micka develops largely from his reading and plan to use an aboriginal ‘pointing bone’ to kill people without having to touch them. One of the most chilling aspects of the story is that the plans that the boys develop are entirely without emotion.
The adults in the book operate in a world entirely divorced from the everyday lives of the boys. Micka makes friends with local travellers where he is treated rather better than in his own home. Micka lacks the experience and emotion to know how to get through life, and has no-one that he can talk to. Neighbours are nowhere to be seen, the bonds of ‘society’ being entirely absent. The boys’ schoolteachers, even Miss Glennie who tries to befriend Micka and identifies his talent for drawing, are unable to relate to the boys who avoid school and seem beyond the control of the police, social services and school enforcement officers.
Micka and Laurie each act as narrators, their stories being presented in different fonts and their individual voices eventually come across distinctly. A greater difference between fonts might have helped the reader initially but would have downplayed the similarities of their respective situations. The author opens up their disturbed interior worlds to the scrutiny of the reader, including their dreams and imaginary worlds. Their amoral planning becomes reality and the reader is left wondering where and when an effective intervention might have been successfully implemented. The dialogue strikes me as realistic and the young ages of the main characters again and again contrast with the bleakness of their worlds, experiences and thinking.
I found this a compulsive read, desperately seeking alternatives to the violence and dysfunctionality that abounds. Micka’s mother’s life has had a similar trajectory to that of her son, but she resorts to alcohol to get her through each day. She, too, is desperate for affection, however little in may be. In contrast, Laurie’s mother is consumed with bitterness to the point of approaching insanity.
Faced with a paraphrase of the story, most people would be judgemental but, having read this book, this easy option disappears. Kay offers the story beneath the knee-jerk headlines of our tabloid media. Her aim is to create a greater awareness of the manifold rifts in society. It is to be hoped that she, rather than the media, influences future political, social and community action. A difficult read but very rewarding.