WhoKilledMyFather.jpg

Édouard Louis’ voice is so passionate and urgent in how he writes about class and sexuality in relation to his personal experiences. It’s no wonder he’s gained a global audience since the English publication of his debut novel “The End of Eddy” in 2017. Now, at the age of 26, he’s published his third book and I wonder if his productivity is outpacing the power of his ideas. “Who Killed My Father” is categorized as a ‘memoir/essay’ and his inspiration for writing it is based on recent visits to his father who is only in his 50s but severely physically debilitated. He queries throughout the book what brought his father to this point, but begins with the premise that his father is condemned to “the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Through emotionally-charged reflections in three parts which criss-cross over time Louis considers the many culprits that he deems responsible. While I agree with many of his ideas and felt moved by the sections of his life that are portrayed, I feel his arguments lack some nuance and are fuelled more by anger than complex reasoning.

Part of the difficulty with feeling fully engaged by the essayistic sections of this book is that Louis keeps falling back on generalities like “male privilege”, “ruling class” and “politics” as pernicious agents. But continuously making accusations against these amorphous concepts begins to feel like throwing stones into the dark. Louis shows how they have a personal effect in multiple ways. The author, his family and the people in his village are perniciously effected by ideas of masculinity. He names politicians in the third section and how their callous policies dismiss the struggles of the working class. His polemic is a valuable reminder to see connections in how society operates and that we shouldn’t be complacent. Yet I hope for more subtlety and proactive ideas if he’s going to make a broad pronouncement like “what we need is a revolution.”  

The author’s reminiscences are really powerful in how he considers the unseen forces at work behind his family’s actions. But an odd feature of this very short book is that references are made to scenes from “The End of Eddy”. So, even though it’s such a brief book, it can feel repetitive if you are familiar with his first novel. I felt the most striking section was the second part where Louis holds himself to account for instigating a violent fight between his big brother and father to get revenge on his mother. It’s to his credit that the author is equally ardent in excoriating his own participation in the violent relationships he quite rightly identifies in society. Louis’ guilt is palpable and probably many of us are guilty of intentionally trying to emotionally or physically hurt our parents at some point in our immature years – especially if a parent maligns us.

When I heard the author presenting his first novel I remember him remarking how the question of whether or not he loves his parents isn’t important to him. But in this new book he expresses his love for his father by seeking justice for his father’s premature flailing heath and by explicating stating his feelings. This shows a really touching emotional maturity since his first book. There’s no doubt that his voice is important - I just wish this book had more of an impact and didn’t read like just a sketch of a number of ideas. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful writer that I hope his rigorous analytical abilities continue to progress in his future books.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis
MermaidMrsHancock.jpg

What a joy it was reading this novel! And I'm so glad I purposely saved it as the last book to read from The Women's Prize longlist. I had a hunch it'd be a pleasurable and immersive story and it was. It's the kind of book I was eager to get back to every time I had to put it down which is something I can't say about some other literary novels no matter how clever or interesting they are. Given how much I enjoyed reading both Imogen Hermes Gowar's debut novel and “The Parentations” I'm beginning to think my favourite kind of historical fiction has a dash of the supernatural mixed in with it. Although, to be honest, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” is almost entirely firmly grounded in reality. The mermaid element comes to stand for something more emotional and rooted in the real world later in the novel. It's primarily the story of a widower businessman whose livelihood is at stake when his merchant vessel is unwittingly traded away and a high society escort/prostitute named Angelica Neal who is reentering her trade after the death of a duke that kept her and left her nothing. Their stories collide in a richly imagined version of late-18th century London with its bawdy houses of ill repute and emerging middle class neighbourhoods.

Fans of Sarah Waters are likely to enjoy this novel for Gowar's incredibly engaging prose style and the rich way she reimagines this historical period without making her research too evident. Also in Waters' fashion, there's a playfully indulgent sexiness to the writing where a woman's breasts are described as “full and pale, seamed with one or two pearly lines, quivering just fractionally in time with her pulse” and, in response, a man is “hard as a yardstick.” It's also the kind of story about a historical time period that wouldn't have been written in the time its set because Gowar adds realistic details that wouldn't have normally been included. For instance, in one part a woman visits a household where she drinks a great deal of tea and in the carriage back has an urgent need to urinate. So Gowar doesn't shy from showing how cumbersome and messy a situation like this would have been in the time period. Also, it gives some presence to racial minorities in Georgian times. One of the sub-plots involves a prostitute named Polly who is bi-racial and a black servant named Simeon. They have very different attitudes towards race and feelings about how to navigate English society as members of a racial minority. While I'm glad Gowar took care in representing different kinds of people from this time period, their stories are perhaps too self-contained and slight within such a larger story so it feels close to tokenism. Nevertheless, she portrays their plight in a sensitive way.

mermaid.jpg

Mostly I found myself drawn towards the character of Angelica and I was wholly wrapped up in her story. She's someone who seems quite superficial and selfish, but comes from a difficult background and has a dogged faith in intense romance. It's skilful the way Gowar made me care about her even when she was doing foolish or cruel things. And it's also compelling how the characters around her seem to caution and advise her against making obvious mistakes, but Angelica can't stop herself from getting into trouble and falling into disgrace. Mr Hancock is sensitive to the fact that “She is a woman out of place, this Angelica Neal, a piece fallen loose from a great machine.” This combined with the melancholy losses Mr Hancock has endured gives the novel real depths of feeling which might not be evident at first. Their journeys take them to a place which should seem like a happy conclusion, but a lasting sense of fulfilment and contentment remain elusive. Rather than stand as a thing of glorious wonder, the mermaid that the characters seek becomes merely “A thing that tells us what we really want is out of reach.” For a novel that appears on the surface to be an indulgent historical tale, “The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock” has a real emotional resonance.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment

It’s difficult enough for many gay people to come out, but for a boy to grow up gay in a working class family in rural France presents its own unique challenges. Eddy, the hero of debut author Édouard Louis’s semi-autobiographical novel, comes of age in the late 90s and early 2000s in a large family that treads close to the poverty line. Almost all the young men in their small town within the Picardy region work in the local factory once they are legally allowed to leave school at an early age. They are expected to conform to a certain type of masculinity: hard-drinking, aggressive and sexually voracious. For naturally effeminate Eddy this presents a problem at an early age when he’s branded a “faggot” – a label he can never shrug off no matter how hard he works to self consciously appear to be a tough guy. His perceptive story recounts the themes and individuals he contends with during his development towards becoming an adult who eventually accepts his nature and finds a place where he can achieve a sense of belonging. It’s filled with the brutal and intimate reality of his journey and makes statements which are at once deeply emotional and highly political.

It’s striking how for much of his early childhood Eddy is well-liked and admired for the things which make his personality unique: polite, intelligent and creative. Yet, at a certain point, these qualities don’t fit into the standard behavior associated with young men. He’s mocked by his family, friends and the other children at school – two of whom regularly and brutally bully him. Having no way to defend himself against these attacks he resolves (in a way he later realizes is akin to Jean Genet) “I thought it would be better if I seemed like a happy kid. So I became the staunchest ally of this silence, and, in a certain way, complicit in this violence.” This is the point at which his life becomes sharply divided; there is the private life and the public face he shows to the rest of the world. Rather than living freely and naturally he becomes self consciousness and begins to modify his behavior to try to conform to those around him. Of course, it doesn’t work. It leads only to humiliation, secrecy and painful self-loathing. All he wants is to fit in, but he’s uniformly rejected.

While things are often difficult for any queer teen navigating through a largely heterosexual society, there are unique hardships for those from a socio-economic background like Eddy’s. He and the people around him have been excluded from the narrative of society. The working class are often ignored and scorned. The author proposes that this causes many to become insular and disdain any “outsiders” or the values of mainstream intellectual society: “To philosophise meant talking like the class enemy, the haves, the rich folk.” It leads to intense levels of homophobia as well as racism and sexism. Eddy concludes that “the crime was not having done something, it was being something. And especially, looking like one of them.” The “them” are the people who don’t conform to the conventional masculine mode which is stringently reinforced in every aspect of this working class community. Because the novel is written in retrospect from the point when Eddy has become Édouard, he’s able to understand the context of his upbringing. However, the physical and emotional pain from his difficult and warped development remain sharp in his memory. The author thoughtfully unpacks the social milieu of Eddy’s life which leads him to feeling like he has no options to leave or find support elsewhere because this is the only home he knows.

There are certain kinds of trauma from which a person can never recover from. Eddy’s many justified grievances will no doubt remain with him throughout his life and the anger he feels is palpable in this narrative. Not only was his self worth viciously lowered by trying desperately to conform, but he suffered numerous painful injustices. These ranged from being mocked by his mother for having asthma while she stubbornly smoked around him to the broken window in his bedroom which was left unrepaired for the majority of his teenage years. Then there are the atrocious contradictions of the people around him. He engaged in willing sexual activities with his male cousin and friends, yet he is the one publicly shamed for participating where the others are not. Also, his father’s homophobia and racism which he continuously vocalizes are forgotten on a couple of occasions when presented with a real gay person at a party or a black man he befriends in another city. Nevertheless, at home his father continued to berate him for his effeminate nature. At times the story feels all the more painful for the way it relates these details as the narrator struggles to make intellectual sense of them while holding the full fury of his emotions at bay.

It feels important that we have more books like “The End of Eddy” which pay tribute to the perspective of those who have been excluded from mainstream society. Notably, novels by Lisa McInerny and Kerry Hudson also sympathetically address this perspective of the working class. It’s been speculated that it was primarily this section of society that voted for Brexit and have elected deeply conservative leaders. Most often it’s their vote which influences government policy to become more insular in focus. Certainly this seems to be the perspective which Zadie Smith proposed in her article ‘Fences’ published in The New York Review. It’s also vital that we continue to have more stories from younger queer generations such as Chinelo Okparanta’s “Under the Udala Trees” and Garrard Conley’s “Boy Erased” where homosexuals still feel intensely pressured to live as heterosexuals. Luckily Eddy was able to eventually go to university, accept his nature and articulate his experience, but there must be countless people like Eddy who have fatally never been able to leave or speak about their constrictive circumstances. However – and this is really important - you don’t need to read “The End of Eddy” because it’s worthy. Read it because it’s a devastatingly honest and moving story in itself.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis