on 16 May 2011
I must admit that I do find reviewing autobiographical books incredibly difficult (no doubt made more difficult by the fact that it has been almost three years since I last wrote a review), primarily because I want to avoid taking a stance that I often criticise other reviewers for taking. With the exception of the reviews that I have read below, I have noticed a growing trend amongst reviews on various websites that demonstrate a polarity of opinion based solely upon the subjectivity of the person reading a book, watching a film or playing a game. It would seem that we are increasingly unable to stand back and be objective when it comes to beliefs that we are pre-disposed to support or causes that we believe in - particularly when the subject of our scrutiny is particularly emotive. In terms of religion, I have seen The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins rated 1 star by "devout" Christians who condemn his work: on the other hand, I have also seen it rated 5 stars by equally "devout" atheists, purely out of principle. Similarly, in terms of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11, opinion is polarised in relation to the documentary Loose Change which encourages people to challenge the information that they were previously given with regards to the events that occurred on that fateful day. For some, it is beyond comprehension to question what they have previously been told - rating this film at zero stars if they could. For others, the documentary merely re-iterates what they already suspected and would rate the DVD at six stars if they could. Finally, and somewhat bizarrely (certainly in terms of it being a horrific subject matter no matter what the circumstances) some reviewers have taken to attacking Richard Pelzer (for his book A Brother's Journey: Surviving a Childhood of Abuse), rating his book very poorly as a direct result of the fact that they do not feel that the child abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother actually happened, or, if it did, he is using it as a way of cashing in on the success of his older brother. I mention these examples to make a point: sometimes we lose sight of where our focus should lie. We are not here to review the person who is writing the book, nor are we here to make judgements on their life. We are here to review the book itself and that is what I am aim to achieve below.
From the blurb `As a child, Nicola Barry just wanted her mother Monica to be normal - to make the family's meals, to care for their home, to look after her and her brothers and be a part of her life. But Nicola's mother was a chronic alcoholic and there was nothing normal about life n the Barry household. Behind closed doors, Monica was drinking herself to death. Mother's Ruin is a powerful story of how Nicola loved and hated her mother in equal measure: loved her when she was sober, hated her when she was drink. It is the story of how a young girl spent her childhood caring for a sick parent, rather than being cared for herself. And it is the story of how that child became an alcoholic too, but, desperate to throw off her mother's legacy, emerged the other side of her addiction - a survivor'.
As I have stated above, I find it incredibly difficult to review non-fiction work in comparison to fictional books. Nicola Barry did not have the freedom or flexibility that a non-fiction author has when creating a story so I do not intend to rate the book in the same way that I would any other novel. Nicola did not create her characters, she did not invent the situations that they found themselves in and she had no influence of how her story began or ended. Her story is that of her life so her work should not be rated on "what" happened in the story, but "how" she managed to convey the events that occurred and the feelings that she had. Similarly, with the exception of Tom Sykes, Nicola is the only author that I have read who not only has a subject-matter but is also a professional writer (she is a journalist) so will be scrutinised on the basis of her writing ability far more than an author (not a professional writer) who has written a similar book would be.
The key to writing a successful book about abuse (whether it is self-abuse or abuse at the hands of someone else), in a literary sense at least, is to avoid simply cataloguing the events that occurred. This can easily descend into a work which allows the author to confront their demons but does not engage or interest the reader. To Nicola's credit, she avoids doing this in a rather simple, yet effective manner. For every major event that Nicola mentions, she follows this with a period of reflection in the text. By describing the event, then discussing her feelings immediately afterwards, she is able to give an incredible sense of balance to each passage. Similarly, in terms of her writing style, Nicola's strength lies in her ability to deliver one-liners with an incredible sense of appropriateness. As another reviewer has pointed out Nicola's first novel `breathes (a) spirit of humour, sarcasm, intelligence and a gif t for the written word' and no more apparent is this than in her succinct sentences. To the author's credit, she has managed to write a book that is both accessible and direct: not every book written about alcohol abuse manages to have a purpose to every chapter so credit should be given to Nicola for achieving this.
The reason why I have only given the book four stars instead of five hinges on a few issues that I could not truly overcome despite reading the book four times. Throughout the course of the narrative, I felt that I could identify with Nicola's feelings towards her mother. The conflicting emotions that ranged between frustration and love were well-documented and I could truly empathise with the author as a result of this. When it came to Nicola's father, however, I couldn't really comprehend how she truly felt about him. Despite describing Claude as "odd, cold and out of his depth" in an interview with Ruth Wishart, on reading the book the first time, I didn't think Nicola went far enough in helping the reader to understand why she felt that her father was psychologically abusive, mentally cruel and emotionally anorexic. It is only as I sit here having just finished reading the book for a fourth time that I have come to realise that Nicola could never have added a decisive extra line or paragraph that would have hammered home her point fully, as quite simply, she had no further examples to give. The fact that her father was "distant to the point of being chilly" meant that he is absent from the book as much as he was absent from her life: not mentioning him more often expounds the point that she is trying to make - a subtle undertone that the reader needs to notice for themselves as the author does not categorically state this.
As another reviewer has pointed out, the book may have benefited from additional emphasis on Nicola's personal battle with alcohol. Although the book is well-balanced in terms of the way each passage reads (Nicola describes an event then reflects on her feelings about it) and each chapters is effective in its own right, by not providing a "later-life analysis of the impact of being a child of a drunken mother and a father who could not cope with his wife's behaviour", the book possibly loses its overall sense of balance - with the first 194 pages being devoted to Monica's battle with alcohol and only 99 pages focussing on Nicola's story. I am not sure if I agree with this criticism (though I do mention it as it is a valid point and I am certain other people will agree with it) as the title of the book indicates from the outset that it will be her mother's ruin (and not Nicola's) which will be the focus of the story. Similarly, from a practical point of view, I would imagine that it would have been difficult for Nicola to provide more material than she already has as, presumably if she was drunk for much of her story, there will be many an episode that she simply can't remember (or would prefer just to forget). Additional information may, therefore, only add to the length of the book, not to the benefit of the narrative.
My final criticism of the book comes not from my own beliefs but (on playing Devil's advocate) from the type of people who criticised Richard Pelzer (as mentioned above), not for his ability to write, but for the content of his book. Nicola has a tendency throughout the course of her book to generously use speech marks for long passages. Speech marks imply that the author is directly quoting the person that is speaking - that what is being written is what that person actually said - word for word. The problem with this is that, for those looking to rate (judge) Nicola on the basis of her traumatic experiences rather than her ability as a writer (which is what I am trying to do), it is possible to challenge the authenticity of what is being written. An example of where Nicola possibly leaves herself open to criticism is on page 188 where she begins to describe a story told by a recovering alcoholic that she met when attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with her mother. For six pages, Nicola recounts a tale of a man (Bob) who kicked his dog to death, with virtually every paragraph in speech marks as if this was an exact account of what Bob had said. Given that Nicola was `aghast (and) horrified' by this story on first hearing of it, some may question whether she is able to accurately reflect what Bob actually said or whether this is an elaboration on her part in order to make the point that she wants to make. For the critic, if this part of Nicola's story is elaborated, then which others parts of the book has she had to manipulate in order to convey her message?
I would like to finish by moving away from reviewing the book to offering praise for the author herself. It is never easy to acknowledge that you have a problem, to hold the mirror up to yourself and admit that you do not like what you see. It is even harder to actually move from acknowledging a problem to actively trying to solve it. Credit then, must go to Nicola Barry for her (in the words of another reviewer) `honest, unpretentious and moving' account of the trials and tribulations she faced, first as the child of an alcoholic, then as an alcoholic herself. Rest assured then, that had I been rating Nicola as an individual and not her book, she would have definitely received the full five stars.