Wednesday, 11 June 2014

'Blood Family' by Anne Fine - Carnegie review

It opens like a thriller, digs deep emotionally and tackles contemporary issues without either dumbing down, over-sensationalising or making a melodrama out of serious subjects.

This year Anne Fine’s ‘Blood Family’ definitely seems to have been the one on the Carnegie shortlist where the content has both surprised and shocked.

‘Blood Family’ is a modern-day story about Eddie, a boy with plenty of problems to fill a book. We meet Eddie, traumatised and imprisoned, aged seven, when the police arrive at his home to rescue Eddie and his mother from a violent relationship.

The intensity of this opening makes for a disturbing start, a menace that never lets up. Yet, however much Eddie’s world seems apart from our own, we get drawn in to understand, which is a great testament to Anne Fine’s concise, appealing writing and her characterisation of Eddie. But it’s the lean and no-nonsense way she handles some really tricky issues that really impressed me about this book.

The story, you have to say, is unusual in itself as a topic of a book for children. But it further stands out in that there are multiple points of view to Eddie’s story – teachers, social workers, foster carers, adoptive parents – and most of them are adults. All with a view, all terribly nice and doing the right thing. All of them are kindly and well-meaning. But none of them really able to understand Eddie.

It’s a downbeat view of how ill-equipped society is to try to rehabilitate children like Eddie, despite lots of very good intentions. And although we’d all like to think there are very few of them, the truth is they are in the headlines depressingly often. It’s strong stuff and definitely aimed at teenage and older readers and would certainly be just as suitable for adults. I felt I enjoyed it much more with my adult eyes than in trying to think how children would come at this story.

The violence isn’t notably worse than in a lot of young adult fiction, but the feeling Anne Fine creates, how she cleverly creates her reality, certainly makes it a story that will stay with you for a long time.

On being freed, Eddie finds it really difficult to relate to the world around him, yet he is sweet and a character easy to warm to.

If there is one thing that living with a violent father has taught him – it’s how to not make waves, how to make yourself almost disappear, how to pick up on signals and always, always say the right thing. So he clears the hurdles set by the social workers and ends up settled with a new family.

The psychiatrists and social workers disappear from Eddie’s life, congratulating themselves on a job well done. But Eddie’s troubles have hardly begun.

None of them have scratched the surface of how Eddie will behave when he starts to grow up and starts to think independently. Everything is there poised like a huge weight ready to topple down on him.

What you could call the second half of the book looses much of the adult viewpoint and gets more into its stride with Eddie, reaching an age of maturity and starting to question his early life. Then the wheels fall of his current, carefully constructed existence. Why did his mother never try to escape? Did she not think he was worth saving?

And the biggest question of all that truly comes to haunt Eddie – is he destined to repeat that violent behaviour? Is it somehow mapped onto his genes? If he is Harris’s son, can he stop himself turning into the monster his father became?

His adoptive family appear ill-equipped with what to expect. And as he has to keep visiting his mother, he can never start afresh and truly try to move on and forget his past. His wonderful sister is the only person who gets under the surface, but she becomes the target of his anger.

Without anyone noticing, Eddie, full of self-disgust, tries to blot out the fear and becomes dependent on alcohol, stealing to fund his habit, occasionally breaking into violence. Is he already walking in his father’s footsteps?

The descriptions of alcohol dependency and Eddie’s journey are finely described, not shying away from the truth, and although there is much to shock a sensitive reader, the violence is not written as entertainment. It is written as a read to provoke thought and discussion.

How easy it would have been to be gratuitous in situations, such as when Eddie realises one of the other inhabitants of his squat has died of an overdose. But this story isn’t using violence for entertainment, in the same way that it doesn’t make drug or alcohol abuse appear even slightly appealing.

There is plenty here that will surely provoke good book-group discussions. It’s about topics that crop up every day on the news. And, ultimately, through unstinting support, he conquers his demons.

Eddie’s voice, from damaged child to damaged adult and beyond, is a bravura piece of writing.

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