The Author has a certain idea of how we should meet blows of destiny, in this case the impending death of a relatively young man, Matt, the father of two children aged eight and ‘not quite fourteen’. The book covers the three months Matt is allowed to live from learning the diagnosis of his disease. It analyzes the psychology of the people involved with such a case, their reactions, their behaviour at various stages and their mastering, or supposed mastering, of the situation in the end.
The narrator of the story is Shelley, the thirteen year old daughter. As it turns out, the Author is not interested in child-psychology, but only in putting over her own, rationalized views. The narrator is therefore not a living person, a character, but a stock-figure, a mouthpiece used to convey to the readers, children(!), the teachings of conventional psychology mingled with a few personal and totally irrelevant views and beliefs the Author holds. In some cases straight forward preaching is hardly disguized, one can tell the teacher.
The Author stresses the ordinariness of the family in question, safely embedded in the consumer society with cornflakes for breakfast, T.V., shopping at Tesco’s, etc. One family out of many. Nothing ‘unusual’ about them, ‘except’ that they ‘all get on rather well’ which probably has a positive sense, approving of a good example, but could not very well be the statement of a thirteen year old, if only for want of experience.
A tragedy like theirs could happen to anybody, it is noted, and the Author draws a clear picture of what ‘normally’ happens under such circumstances, following basic laws of psychology.
The motto is to coolly analyze all the reactions, break them down into their psychological components, thus enabling people to ‘digest’ their problem piece by piece :
1° First of all there is the fear of dreaded words like ‘die’ and ‘death’. Psychology teaches us that we have to learn to say them aloud, voice our troubles. This takes the sting out of them. The family duly goes through this process.
2° The next important thing is to laugh. It relaxes the tension and stops people from pitying themselves. It doesn’t seem to matter how the laughter is produced, in extreme situations people will accept anything, even the most banal remark, if it will remove them from their troubles. The family willingly goes through this process, too :
p.44 Matt: ‘When I pop off, you’ll be sickeningly wealthy with all the insurance money.’
p.45 Shelley; ‘Making jokes about Matt’s death was one important way we had developed for coping with the situation.’
p.45 Matt: ‘Unless you laugh at Death, He gets the upper hand.’
3° Another important psychological need under such circumstances is the presence of something one can hold on to and put one’s faith in, a slightly tricky problem for non-religious people like the family involved. However, the Author provides the ‘flash of blue’ without ever insinuating what it does for them. A patch of blue in the sky, a blue kingfisher and at the end, all’s well that ends well, a blue opal, a posthumous present from her father, a deus ex machina for lucky Shelley, which solves her problem for her.
It is deplorable that the Author, who excels at analyzing a child’s emotions for her, does not explain how these perfectly ordinary, natural phenomena can have this tremendous effect of giving ‘hope and courage’. For want of anything better one has to create an illusion and hang on to it as long as one needs to. After that the good old proverb ‘Time is a great healer’ will come into its own. The Author doesn’t say this, but leaves us with the illusion. This is also true of the flowers on the grave which ‘cried a lesson of hope and courage’ (91). There is a fair jump from ‘flowers’ to ‘hope and courage’. Regrettably we don’t learn how it comes about, it could have been a fine piece of psychoanalysis. And what about the thrush that starts to sing in time at the funeral ???
4° A popular saying tells us that ‘there is always worse’. The Author makes skilful and discreet use of this. If you can find something worse, your own trouble will be bearable. Thus, Matt would rather die than live in perpetual ill health. Shelley’s brother Barney finds the grave of a three months old baby in the cemetery and comments: ‘Isn’t that sad!’ The implication is obvious and comforting.
5° Make the best out of a bad situation is also a popular recommendation. Thus, the cemetery is not such a bad place after all, it is ‘peaceful’ and ‘beautiful’. And Matt died ‘peacefully’ (85), which is nice to know. All the friends and neighbours behave in the nicest possible way, and the funeral is a pleasant event. We hear that Matt would have liked it. We are relieved to learn that the family has pulled through, even though Barney has taken to ‘bed-wetting’ which, we hear from Shelley, ‘betrayed his distress’ (88).
Here are a few examples of Shelley speaking, analyzing impressions and sensations on the spot. Not many adults do !
p.9 ‘She was wearing the pink one that makes her look fatter than she is’.
p.12 ‘Freda’s mouth dropped open in satisfying astonishment’.
p.13 ‘Fear made me angry’.
p.18 ‘Its bumpy, uneven surface gave me a sense of comfort’.
p.25 ‘This morning I moved smoothly from sleeping to consciousness, only a vague sense
of unease (the remnant probably of a dream forgotten on waking) marking the
difference between the two states.
p.30 ‘the down-to-earth optimism had always played such an important part in making me
p.31 ‘It scared me so much that the scare turned to unreasoning anger’.
p.51 eight year old Barney: ‘death causes lots of upsets and changes things when you
don’t want them to be changed’.
And many more.
There is a fair deal of straight forward preaching.
p.50 Matt: ‘Sometimes we only see what we want to see.’
p.62 Matt: ‘Jealousy has got an ugly voice.’
p.22 Ellie: ‘We’re afraid you may dramatize the whole thing … go tragic … it wouldn’t be
good … Matt’s afraid that you may give way to anger and self-pity’.
And so on.
The Author would appear to be at odds with astronomy. She devotes a whole paragraph to the ‘new moon’ which shone, even through the tightly closed curtains’. (33)
She also makes Matt say that he would like to ‘sit on a star and see the universe turn’. (54)
She shows her appreciation of music by making Shelley call ‘people like Brahms and Holst more soothing composers’ (16) and an awareness of the problems Wagner deals with: ‘in Wotan’s world love has no power and yet without love power declines’, according to Shelley.
The Author likes to use unusual imagery, its unusualness being its only merit :
p.22 Shelley about peas she is eating: ‘Each burst with a sweet freshness that for me
was the taste of summer itself’.
p.24 ‘I wandered through the house, eventually settling, lizard-like, in a patch of sunlight.’
This is possible as an observation by an outsider, not as a statement from a child
p.13 ‘Visions of funerals invaded my head; a box disappearing into the ground, flowers,
people in black clothes’.
p.65 ‘I struggled up from the black waters of sleep’. This is a child of thirteen speaking.
Sentimental platitudes and clichés are also in abundance :
p.5 ‘one day when the shadow falls and the process of learning to live under its shade’.
What does ‘its’ refer to ?
p.? ‘water beads glinted like jewels in his untidy mop of curls’.
Sounds like a worshipping woman rather than a child.
p.13 ‘I could remember him saying once that he would like a tree planted on him when he
p.69 Sh: ‘I wish you didn’t have to die.’
Matt: ‘Oh so do I, Shelley, so do I.’
Sh.: ‘I won’t ever forget you’.
p.91 ‘Good night, I whispered, gazing up to the stars.’
The last statement is certainly not in keeping with Matt’s view of death: ‘we die, rot and thus create new life’. It reveals basic helplessness where death is concerned and Matt’s family revert to religion (church funeral) for want of something else, accepting to be comforted by social conventions, self-created illusions and suitable jokes at the right moment.
The book wants to show its young readers what happens when we are struck by disaster and how to accept it, cope with it and digest it. With the help of popular psychology, social conventions and home-made illusions one can reconcile oneself to something terrible. We have no choice after all.
Hopefully the Author will come forward with more books about how to accept murder, war, the Bomb, etc. etc.
May I suggest to introduce a small amount of freshness and spontaneity for better reading. My younger daughter, twelve, called the book ‘depressing’, my elder daughter, sixteen, ‘dry and boring’.