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In which Netty tells you why you should read The Man Who Loved Children, even though you might not like it very much …

December 13, 2013

Image“You can choose your friends but not your family” is an adage that has always had an uncomfortable ring of truth to it. And families in all their myriad forms have always made for some of the best fiction – or faction.

It is more than appropriate that the introduction to the 2010 edition of Australian author Christina Stead’s best-known work, The Man Who Loved Children – republished 70 years after it first hit bookshelves – was penned by Jonathan Franzen. This American author knows his way around a dysfunctional family saga or two himself, with his 2001 book The Corrections probably the best – certainly the best known – example of the genre of recent times.*

Franzen is credited with renewing global interest in this Australian classic (ahem. It is actually set – and not altogether convincingly – in Washington DC, the result of some meddling American publisher who insisted on transplanting it from its original setting of Sydney, presumably to better woo the States-side book-reading public) with his effusive essay, first published in the New York Times Book Review,  singing Man’s praises. It is not the first time someone of note has gone into bat for Stead’s book – in 1965 novelist and critic Randall Jarrell did the same; his original essay backends my Franzenised copy.

The Man Who Loved Children is the sort of book that should be a staple of English literature reading lists. Stead wrote 15-odd novels, a couple of volumes of short stories and published a few more of letters during her lifetime (having lived most of it overseas, she returned to her birthplace of Sydney in her later years and died there in 1983 at the age of 80). But the semi-autobiographical Man – her fourth novel – remained the jewel in her literary crown.

Stead once told a journalist that she did not have to write her memoirs, because she already had – a remark that clearly referred to The Man Who Loved Children, which doesn’t even try to hide its parallels to Stead’s early life. It also largely explains why she left Australia at a young age, was basically estranged from her father and, as an adult, never saw him again.

There is no doubt The Man Who Loved Children is a very worthy read – and yes, that is deliberately loaded criticism. How much you as a reader are going to enjoy it depends on your reaction to the characters – and whose side, if any, you are going to take in the domestic war of the Pollits, husband and wife Sam and Henny, whose intense marital discord, and fear and loathing, spills into every aspect of their familial life and poisons the everyday existence of their seven children. Personally, I wouldn’t mind reading a sequel to Man (there never was one, obviously) to see just what sort of fucked-up adults they all grew up to be. Because make no mistake …

Andy refers to Henny, the overwrought, over-the-top matriarch, as a “monster” in his blog – and no doubt she is. But, goddamn it – she was only driven to it by that manipulative, maniacal, narcissistic, egotistical flog of a husband of hers! (yep, I’m openly outing myself as being firmly and squarely on Team Henny). Sam and Henny fight their awful battles in full view of their children, who are enmeshed in the tragic pathos and subjected to its shocking, casual violence. This is a car-wreck of clan at its finest. And just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does.

Stead’s great literary gift is detailing the often quite mundane aspects of family life – this is a novel that didn’t really need to go on for 500-plus pages – to paint an overall picture; you often get the feeling the story isn’t really going anywhere, when its author is actually setting you up for the final kapow (and – no spoilers from me, either! – what a kapow it is). And that last incendiary 150 pages is what ultimately makes it all worthwhile – you might not have much enjoyed the journey, but, my god, what a destination.

I can’t really talk about Sam Pollit – I spent the whole book wanting to throttle the life out of him with my bare hands – without clenching my teeth and feeling my blood pressure start to slowly rise. And don’t get me started on that stupid baby-babble talk of his! I have already happily admitted to sympathising with Henny, despite her absolute awfulness and many, many faults. I was rooting for Louie, the poor, put-upon eldest child, from Sam’s first marriage, to embrace her awkward adolescence and get the flying fuck out of there. I didn’t hold out much hope for her siblings, although I harboured a soft spot for Ernie, and was rooting for him almost as much as his half-sister. But isn’t that typical of families? No one ever wants to admit it, but your average family is awash with favouritism, rivalries, secrets, never-ending battles – some more subtle than others. There is nothing subtle about the Pollitts – and that is what gives The Man Who Loved Children its mesmeric, gripping power.

Franzen says Man is “the kind of book that if it is for you, is really for you”. He is right. But even though you mightn’t like the characters, you mightn’t even like the book much, you might waver back and forth – ultimately you’ll be glad you read it, and you certainly won’t forget it in a hurry.

(*If you really want a really ripping family saga, make sure you make haste when August: Osage County hits the cinemas next year. It’s based on masterful American playwright Tracy Letts play, and boasts a star-studded cast (Meryl Streep plays the matriarch). And if they’ve done even a half-baked job of it, it will still knock your socks off and win every Academy Award going round. You read it here first.)

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