This is a series of letters Iain Maitland wrote to his son Michael, over the period 2007-2013. It covers a series of family adventures and misadventures Iain relates to his son, and running through them is a growing awareness that Michael is desperately ill, with Anorexia and depression. Until the moment when Michael hits bottom and has to be hospitalised, in the last section of the book, Iain and his family’s stock reaction is one of angry denial that Michael needs to do no more than pull his socks up, and not be so dependent on his girlfriend Niamh, who increasingly speaks for Michael and cares for him.
Through Iain’s letters we get to know the family well; Iain the hard pressed, long suffering writer, fighting a losing battle against the internet (he wrties information bulletins amongst other things), ‘your dear Mother’ Tracy, a classroom assistant who is clearly the emotional heart of the family, and Michael’s volatile sister Sophie, ambitious, intelligent, and with a tendency to go ‘nuclear’ if angered or disappointed. There is also a string of Sophie’s boyfriends, each with their own foibles, but all ‘good sorts’ who do not survive as Mr Right, but become part of the family nevertheless And Michael, at University, with Niamh, studying an art degree and increasingly frightened and unwell.
Iain’s letters are interspersed by a commentary which outlines key events, why the family reacted the way it did , their growing understanding (which comes late) of mental health issues, and through it all a raw, unflinching honesty.
The book is also very funny, Iain knows how to be laugh out loud amusing in his writing. We come to know and love this family. They are clearly warm, loving, accepting, generous and hospitable, with an open door policy to their family and family friends. Iain is frustrated and angered by his son and honest about what he did not know and what he chose to ignore. He relates his own childhood which was shockingly painful, not by way of excuse, but important context.
It’s a book whose main truth is that their no such thing as a perfect parent, that there is no manual of perfect parenting. We are complex, our children are complex, we live in a complex of world. We have our bedrock of values and moral code, and that has to inform an infinite variety of relational combinations of issues and possibilities. But love here shines through it all, as it must for all of us if we are to stay afloat, and keep our loved ones afloat, through all life’s storms.
The book serves to inform on the important issues of mental health and young people, and is an important corrective to the common misconception that anorexics are all fashion mag obsessed teenage girls. The mental health of young men is often overlooked, although there has been a lot of corrective awareness raising recently, and it’s good to have this book as part of that. The book is also full of important social history of our recent past, in our rapidly changing world.
But best of all, it’s honest, funny and loving. I feel richer for having read it.