Sunday, March 8, 2015

Review: "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves, the debut novel of Matthew Thomas, is the kind of debut novel that comes around very rarely. That isn’t to say I have read some fantastic debuts even this year, but none have come out this fully formed and this mature. I’d liken it to Donna Tartt’s debut novel The Secret History, and more recently David Wroblewski’s first, and to date only, novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. This mammoth novel of family crisis, clocking in at an even 620 pages, is not only a great read that I am sure will make a big splash once word of mouth spreads about it, but it is also a grand summation of Thomas’ abilities as a storyteller. This is the kind of book a writer writes well into their career, with the large scope of classic family novel yet with the intimacy that usually accompanies gritty, realistic stories. To pull such a balancing act off takes great skill, and usually only occurs once a writer is halfway into his career. Thomas has done something astounding with his first novel. There is nothing really showy about it: it doesn’t make any big political statements; Thomas is not an overly aggressive writer, and it is written rather plainly, telling its story of a family affected by Alzheimer’s Disease with great compassion, insight and without a hint of irony to be found. The books’ main focus is on Eileen Tumulty, born in 1941 to a large Irish family living in Long Island, New York. From her younger days, she has always been a dreamer with goals that always seem out of her reach. She has to be, growing up in a tumultuous (pun intended) house where her father was a slightly heavy drinker and her mom has a slight emotional problem. It isn’t the stereotypical abusive family archetype; her parents love her and the rest of her family is rather supportive, they are all just flawed human beings screwing up and succeeding in equal measure. It creates not only a relatable atmosphere, because no one had perfect parents, and sustains Eileen’s dreams for something better. She sees that something better in the form of Ed Leary, a man she falls in love with who also happens to be on the fast track to a promising academic career. They marry, have a son, Connell, and reach some sort neutrality in their lives, but once Ed begins to exhibit signs of the aforementioned neurological disorder, do things begin to unravel for the Leary’s. Connell grows up confused and painfully self-aware, going from being bullied to being the bully throughout his school years, more than once being too scared to make his life better. Worse for Eileen, she must refit her dreams to deal with her fading husband, sometimes giving up on them all together. It gets ugly at times when the disease is in full swing, but this is an honest book filled with (mostly) honest people, who, no matter what, will always have our sympathy. There are some distracting moments, like a scene where Connell and the afflicted Ed practice for Connell’s upcoming debate by discussing euthanasia that seems tacked on, but there is rarely a moment where this book doesn’t grasp the kind of greatness every debut novel seeks, and this isn’t just a great debut, but one of the best books I will read this year.

Rating: 5/5

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