Book Review: The Book of Emmett


I had no intention of posting book reviews here, but this book really struck me. It’s a new release Australian book, by first time novelist Deborah Forster.

In one review it’s described as:

“a powerful and emotional work that begins with the funeral of Emmett, the main protagonist. Forster has written an emotional tale of domestic violence with simple yet engaging language. Set in the western suburbs of Melbourne, where Forster grew up, the novel traces the complex relationships between brothers and sisters and the love and pain that evolves between them in this house of violence. A tragic book in so many ways, this is a great debut novel with haunting characters and an intensity that will move readers.”

Does it measure up? Partly.

In its early chapters, the book is a harrowing retelling of the daily living hell of the Brown children – Louisa, Rob, Peter, Daniel and Jessie. On a personal level I found these chapters quite traumatising, and, at times, I struggled to get through them. I was able to reflect on how they made me feel, and the very strong physical reactions I had to the victimisation. In a way, it probably also helped me to see my own childhood as fairly typical, in an atypical kind of way.

In these early stages the book illustrates (albeit fleetingly) the beginnings of the mal-copings that come to serve survivors. The eating issues, for example: eating fast to get the meal over with; to get through it in peace; or at least in one piece. The origins of self-loathing: thinking you are the sole cause of every problem that ever occurs in the household, and the world’s biggest failure for not being able to fix them. The tap dancing routine you perfect to test the mood of the day, and to maintain any calm. Recoiling at your father’s touch, and then feeling guilty because he shows a nanosecond of tenderness and hurt at your reaction.

As the children grow up, these “issues” don’t really play out fully. In many respects they appear shallow, hinted at but never explored. Despite acknowledging the sense of a lost childhood, I found the book missed the depth of emotional pain and dysfunction that taints many survivors’ lives.

However, just when you think you’ve had enough of the shallowness, the book bounces back with some further exploration of the struggles these kids face as adults. The depression that lies in wait, sneaking up on you when you least expect it. Wondering why the Mum stayed with this man and her realising, all too late, that she probably shouldn’t have. The hint of relief when you think your father’s dead, mixed with the ache when you realise he isn’t. And the confusion as you watch your father die – the hatred mixed with hints of compassion for a frail old man in his last months.

The book does a good job of portraying Emmett – his hatred, rage, alcoholism, his lack of self-esteem and the hideousness of his own upbringing. But I hated him. To. The. Core. And the children’s conclusions in Emmett’s last days that love concurs all – well, I thought that was just a load of baloney.

On reflection this is probably an odd book review, or an odd book for me to review. After all, it is a work of fiction. But I found it hard not to reflect on the story and the characters – as children, and as adults – based on my own experience.

Technically it was an easy read, but I found it pretty hard. Would I have thought differently of this book if I wasn’t a survivor? Undoubtedly. But as a survivor, I thought it could have gone further.

Perhaps the best thing about this book for me is simply that it’s a book. And I read it (along with two others this past week). This means my capacity to concentrate on something other than 23 minute reruns of old TV shows (and more specifically my capacity to READ) could be coming back. Yay! 🙂