Here is a collection of the most depressed, depressing individuals that it is possible to conjure in one small volume. The inside flap would have you believe that you’re taking a journey into the heart of a family “as normal, and as broken, as any other”. What a load of ostrich feathers. Everyone knows there’s no such thing as a normal family, and the reference to broken is simply to cash in at the counter for the Recognition of Dysfunctional Families (incorporated).
Don’t get me wrong. Dysfunctional families, siblings with unfathomable behaviour traits, passive aggressive mothers, violent fathers – it’s a reading currency I’m more than happy to trade in. But it’s got to have a point, right? There has to be some greater lesson, some rhyme, some reason – hell, even just a question that alludes to a possibility of an answer – otherwise what’s it all for? When everything remains so murky – for example, why does Stephen hate his sister (surely not JUST because she’s better at making kites?). And why is Mandy so incapable of loving her husband? Or more to my immediate concern, what kind of a man has zero libido when his wife returns after 4 months abroad?? Sure, Mandy is damaged by war (this part is done very well), but what’s it all got to do with the crazy orderly guy and the bushfire when she was 16?
I’m being deliberately facetious; for the most part I did understand the threads and undertones of “The Children”, and the links aren’t as tenuous as I’m making out. But the problem, superbly written though it may be, is that it just doesn’t ring true – either as a whole OR as individual parts. The attempt to leave some things unwritten, to let the gaps speak for themselves, resulted in a great big thumping echo ringing back at me. Other authors have attempted the same thing and gotten away with it (even managed to have the characters laugh at themselves once in awhile too, now there’s a novel idea!) – Sarah Winman, Penelope Lively, Andrea Levy are just a few that come to mind off the top of my head. Not so for “The Children”. Without a hope of an answer for all this emptiness, much less a kernel of wry humour to ease the bitter pill, I may as well just point my head to the window and think about my own er… issues. Which is just about as productive. Oh, and that’s without even giving you the spoiler, which involves a gun and aforementioned crazy orderly guy.