Pilcrow – Adam Mars-Jones

I had to give myself a little break from Pilcrow before I could review it so that I could take it all in and let it digest. Adam Mars-Jones has been heralded for some time as one of the best writers by Granta and other such places… before he had even written his first novel, so Pilcrow had a lot to live up to before it was even published and released, it manages to live up to and beyond expectations. The book deals with so much its difficult to sum it up in a review of any length but I shall do my best for you all.

John Cromer is the unusual and fantastic narrator starting around the age of five when doctors diagnose him with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis leading to him having several years of bed rest. From there we are given the often hilarious thoughts and theories that John has as a young boy growing up in the 1950’s. From what he thinks happens in the outside world which he hasn’t seen much of to his mother’s obsession with breeding budgies and cockatiels. It also gives us the underlying insight into marriages and society in that period from things that Johns mother (who is a brilliant gossip) says that we the reader can understand and piece together even if the narrator is too young and doesn’t himself. It also looks at a child’s idea of what life is like to be stuck in that environment in that time and how he feels at the prospect of it being forever.

However it isn’t forever as during a visit to the dentists his mother reads a piece on the misdiagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and Still’s disease of which John is discovered to have the latter and the one thing you should have if you have Stills disease is bed rest leaving him with lasting disabilities. This part of the book is quite heart breaking as the family cope with the fact what they have been doing is wrong and that now more damage to John has been done to him physically when he and his family believed he was being made better. This then becomes some of the most interesting part of the book as he learns to deal with unsympathetic nurses, other children (two girls of which are hilarious evil tyrants), the workings of his ‘taily’, a murderess on the loose, and the fact that he likes boys. All these subjects are discussed through a child’s eyes which I don’t always like in novels, however here it works as the reader you can draw more adult connotations and hints from everything John sees and tells you. I just loved the black and white view of a child’s and particularly in the circumstances and era that this novel is set, and also in terms of discussing growing up, sexuality and disability.

Adam Mars-Jones has done something quite magnificent with this novel. Every character has depth even if they only appear very briefly, be they a concerned doctor, interfering Grandmother, abusive nurse or 6 year old tyrant and child eater they are dealt with in a real way. He also writes with humour this could easily have been a very heavy and hard going novel. Through Johns observations, bluntness and the scenarios he gets himself into there is tragedy but also some incredibly funny scenes.

The hardest aspect of the book, which isn’t actually that difficult, is the fact it isn’t totally linear and can sometimes jump a long way forward or not too far back, you never loose where you are though and by the end I was slowing down not wanting the final page to be turned. The good news is that this is the first in a trilogy, so I will be getting to hear more about John and his life in the future. That is where the book and its author have triumphed I think John is one of the best characters I have read in a very long time and like the blurb says ‘He’s the weakest hero in fiction – unless he is one of the strongest’. This is a must read book and I hope will get a nod in some of the awards as they come. I think everyone should give this a go as its remarkable and extremely individual. I can’t imagine anyone disliking this book as its so rewarding in so many ways. 5/5.

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~ by greatgayreads on April 4, 2009.

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