Book No 21(2014) : The Boy with the Topknot

topknotI first heard about this book via the online networking site ‘Mumsnet’, where keen readers frequently cited it as one of their ‘must-reads’. ‘The Boy with the Topknot’ was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award in 2008 – its subtitle is ‘A Memoir of Love, Secrets and Lies in Wolverhampton’. I’m so glad that the author listed ‘Love’ as the first of the elements of his memoir, as Sathnam Sanghera’s love for his family is the common thread which runs through his autobiography.

S.Sanghera is a highly-educated and successful journalist. He explains this in the book, along with a light sketch of his fashionable lifestyle: flat in London, brushes with celebrity, foreign travel, champagne and girlfriends. This glamorous existence contrasts sharply with his upbringing in Wolverhampton, as a not-very-accomplished Punjabi speaking schoolboy. He was raised as a Sikh, expected by his mother to marry a suitable Jat Sikh girl. However, Sathnam does not intend to have his life partner chosen by his family and he decides he must break this unwelcome news to his mother. However, in 2000, when he is just 24, Sathnam discovers letters which reveal that his father has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Putting two and two together very quickly, he realises that his sister Puli is also a sufferer.

Confronting the realities of his father and sister’s illness unearths a painful vault of family memories, including domestic violence. His parents have been hampered by their lack of money, status and command of English. As Sathnam himself concludes, his father is ‘an illiterate, uneducated, unemployed mentally ill Asian man [who] doesn’t matter in the eyes of society’.

Sathnam Sanghera is a self-deprecating, perceptive writer whose wit and charm belie a searing honesty when charting his personal history. This book is a poignant and revealing read, but also reminded me that I have had little or no exposure to multicultural Britain. Sure, I lived in Lewisham for a while, but was in no way integrated into its diverse ways – I just floated along the top of the stream, not really paying much attention. I can’t blame myself for being born white and (dare I say) middle-class, but I should certainly be more aware of the difficulties which minority groups face in the UK. Sathnam Sanghera has the insight to open a lot of our eyes.

Book No 15 (2014) : The Shock of the Fall

shockWell, everyone tries to read the big prize winners, don’t they? The ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer fought off the competition to take the 2013 Costa Book of the Year Prize.

Matthew Homes is a 19-year old schizophrenic and, as he points out: ‘I’m a mental patient, not an idiot’. Told in his own words, the book describes Matthew’s attempts to live within the confines that his illness places upon him. Desperate to get away from home, Matt takes on a flat with a friend, but the arrangement doesn’t work out. Left to live independently, his Nanny Noo comes to visit him every week, and the local care in the community support tries to engage Matthew and encourage compliance with his drug regime. Later, sectioned under the Mental Health Act, he spends time confined within a psychiatric ward. This unsettled existence is played out against the backdrop of an earlier incident in his life, when a fatal accident befalls Simon, Matthew’s younger brother. Simon’s voice, and the belief that the siblings are to be reunited, is the soundtrack of Matthew’s inner life.

Although the language used to narrate the book is accessible and typical of a young person, the underlying themes of the book are disturbing. Primary amongst these is the woeful inadequacy of the care offered to Matthew as a result of his illness. I noted that the author is himself a registered mental health nurse and that one of the book’s wardcritics was Jo Brand. Although well-known as a comedienne, Ms Brand’s former career was as a mental health nurse. Her positive endorsement of the book suggests that the descriptions of the time Matthew spends in ‘hospital’ must be indicative of the truth. The days are monotonous, there are no diversions, entertainment or stimuli and he is simply fed drugs at regular intervals. This condemnation of the ‘care’ system  is damning.

The ‘Shock of the Fall’ is not a comfortable work, but I recommend it. I couldn’t understand why it had overtaken Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life After Life’ in the Costa race – having read them both, I can now.