Book review: The Wacky Man

wacky man

From the Legend Press website:

“Lyn G. Farrell is the winner of the 2015 Luke Bitmead Bursary and The Wacky Man is her debut novel.  Lyn grew up in Lancashire where she would have gone to school if life had been different. She spent most of her teenage years reading anything she could get her hands on. She studied Psychology at the University of Leeds and now works in the School of Education at Leeds Beckett University.”

“The Wacky Man” is by no means a comfortable read.  Its story of Amanda (part drawn from the author’s real life) is one of a disturbed and damaged young woman who rages against her mother, her situation, and sad of all, herself (she smashes mirrors which reflect her ‘pig’ face, she hides her face under her hair so people do not look at her, she classes herself as ugly even when we hear in other parts of the book about what a beautiful child she was).

Amanda’s father, Seamus, is brutal, unfeeling and systematically tyrannical around his wife and children.  His abrasive manner and distorted way of showing a connection or affection for his children through violence (a social worker asks a young Amanda ‘do you love your daddy?’ and she replies ‘yes, but I don’t think he loves me’) is hard to stomach, but he is in no way presented as a monster.  This is a book which gives its characters a fully-rounded approach, and in doing so, makes them believable.

Aside from the chapters which have Amanda’s account of her life in the 1st person, we also have chapters which look in from the outside, including her mother Barbara, who was trapped into marriage with Seamus after a drunken sexual romp which led to him wanting to ‘do the right thing’.  These give a different perspective on the woman who, we might feel when reading the daughter’s account, has failed her child and become a bad mother: conversely, we may feel some sympathy for both Barbara and Seamus, no matter how they have conspired unwittingly to create a daughter who relies on shrinks and self-harm to survive day by day in the world.

I did approach this book with some trepidation given the subject matter, also because I know the author personally having worked with her some years ago and when you know someone, sometimes it feels a little odd spooking into their private memories, even if they are publicly shared in this manner.  Of course Lyn G Farrell is not Amanda, but in reading around her biography I see there was physical abuse in her childhood at the hands of her father, and those issues and those of mental illness and collapse, are portrayed extremely well, while still presenting stories of a growing and evolving family life with some moments of humour.

This book will reward any reader willing to give this the time and attention it deserves.  I found it a very emotional experience in places, a disturbing one in others, but somehow I developed a liking for Amanda in particular, as despite her troubles she shows a deep self-awareness and strength which keeps her going.  She’s a fighter, a survivor, she is plucky and when she rages, she bubbles with life.

The title, incidentally, refers to Seamus as both a violent man and, perhaps, one with some mental issues himself, so ‘wacky’ as in the walking stick he uses to beat his young son across the back, and in the definition of a person as ‘wacky’ in terms of their peculiarity or eccentricity.  This is a book which plays with names, with definitions, and ultimately with memories, which is where the mix of voices is so relevant and poignant in a way.

I felt hints of JD Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ and Holden Caulfield in the anger of the narrator, but that is very much a teenage-focused book for angry young things, just like the contemporary films featuring James Dean.  The strongest links I got from ‘The Wacky Man’, and they are just hints of the books I have loved on topics relating to mental disintegration in particular, are Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood in ‘The Bell Jar’ (who could be a close cousin of Barbara, or her sister), or Susanna Kaysen’s autobiographical ‘Girl, Interrupted’.

Having said this, Farrell has very much developed her own style and tone and I am very pleased to hear that a future novel is in development.  I recommend this title to you wholeheartedly, and thank Lucy Chamberlain at Legend Press for the gratis copy in return for an honest review on this book’s launch blog tour.