In my professional life (before children), I spent a large amount of time writing things for government ministers to ‘say’ (most often these things were published in documents, brochures and as part of press releases). The aim of the game was ‘sound bites’ – pithy little one-liners that got to the guts of the matter (in my case, it was all about river and water management) and made for ‘quotable quotes’ for ministers.
Idiopathy by Sam Byers is novel written in ‘sound bites’. Punchy, carefully crafted sentences (many of them funny and/or insightful) draped over a loose (and somewhat odd) plot.
“She wondered how people had ever achieved comprehensive worrying before Google, which listed fears you never knew you had in the order other people had them.”
The story centres on Katherine, Daniel and Nathan. Katherine and Daniel were once a couple – their relationship fuelled by arguments – of the intellectual and just good-old-fashioned spiteful varieties. Nathan hung out with Katherine and Daniel when they were a couple but suddenly dropped off the radar (we quickly learn he was admitted into hospital for psychiatric treatment).
Nathan returns. Daniel has a job that makes him feel like a hypocrite. He also has a new girlfriend – the predictable (and aptly named) Angelica who does ‘..what it said on her wrapper.’ Katherine’s self-loathing is at an all-time high. And did I mention that this is all played out on a stage that features a mysterious cattle disease as the backdrop?
Katherine and Daniel’s navel-gazing made for tiring reading. I felt like I’d been nagged incessantly by the end. Daniel was an insecure dill and Katherine was mean, with a penchant for one-upmanship – they probably made the perfect couple.
“…he felt decidedly sharp-edged. Katherine would have said this was his true self. As far as she was concerned, conviviality was always a lie. You could fake being nice, she would say, but being a cunt came from the heart.”
In contrast, the parts of the story focused on Nathan and his parents were clever and if Byers was taking a satirical aim at parenting, he hit the mark, particularly with Nathan’s mother who, much to Nathan’s horror, publishes her experiences in a self-help book – ‘Mother Courage: One Woman’s Battle Against Maternal Blame’ (brilliant!).
“Nathan’s father, a man who wore a year-round yachting jacket despite never having set foot on a yacht, slid out of the car accompanied by the industrial rustle of chemically complex fabrics.”
“‘Mothers Who Survive dot com. The website.’ His mother’s voice was strategically calm to the point where it aroused the exact opposite sense in Nathan. ‘It’s for mother’s who have, at one time or another, as the name suggests, survived.’
‘Survived what, he says,’ said Nathan’s father.
‘Their children,’ said Nathan’s mother.”
Byers’s writing style is snappy and energetic – occasionally it’s a little too smart and forced. But I forgave that for the passages about Nathan and his relationship with his father – endearing, cleverly observed elements that are no doubt true of so many real-life father/son relationships. To a lesser extent, Daniel’s relationship with his father (suffering dementia) and Katherine’s with her interfering mother were explored – again, the small, almost banal details were perfectly integrated into the narrative, making them deliciously close to the bone. It was these parent/child relationships that shone.
2.5/5 There were four elements to this book – Katherine, Daniel, Nathan and cows. They were all okay to begin with but only Nathan’s story held fast for me.
I received my copy of Idiopathy from the publisher, Fourth Estate, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Nathan’s father (in his ‘man-cave’) –
“‘Pink lemonade, gin, curacao and a dash of Disaronno,’ said his father, toeing the oche. ‘I call it The Quiet Revolt because I’m not really allowed lemonade.'”
I want a Quiet Revolt (I imagine it would look like these).