January 16, 2014

Book Review: Far from the tree

far-from-the-tree-parents-children-and-the-search-for-identityI have a confession to make. I took the new Booker Prize winner away with me on my summer holiday, having saved it for the occasion. A prodigal young writer with a shared name; historical fiction set in a country not far from home. It’s hefty, yes, but I enjoy losing myself in a very thick book. Reflecting on it, I think the problem was that very phrase – losing myself. It didn’t happen, I only made it to page 160 before I had to stop. I just wasn’t drawn in, I didn’t want to stop time and lie on the hammock/sofa/bed – just me and the book. I have no doubt that Eleanor Catton is brilliant, and that The Luminaries is deserving of reward, but I wanted a story, and it was too tangled and opaque to find one that captivated me.
Almost to punish myself, then, I picked up the other equally thick book I had brought along – non-fiction – Andrew Solomon’s book about parenting different children called Far from the Tree. Solomon is the author of a book on depression, The Noonday Demon, and in his latest looks at how parents cope when their child is vitally different to them. Far from the tree is divided into twelve sections – ten dealing with ways in which a child can be different sandwiched between an introduction and conclusion. The ten differences are: Deaf, Dwarfs, Down’s Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime and Transgender. These sound profoundly varied – and they are – but in each section Solomon looks at the different challenges families face when raising a child who fits into that identity, and how so frequently those parents find a capability for love, activism or simply perseverance that they never would have previously imagined.
Solomon says in the introduction: ‘Life is enriched by difficulty; love is made more acute when it requires exertion.’ What a brilliant sentence – it coalesces something I have been struggling to express for years. But aside from his remarkable capability for expression, what I loved were the stories of ordinary families raising extraordinary children. Solomon is constantly present in the writing – from discussing his own experience growing up gay with straight parents to revealing his reactions to the people he is interviewing. He stays in their homes, exchanges letters, and develops friendships with these people. The book is at once deeply personal and scholarly; reflective and research-laden; informative and totally engaging. It made me re-think the choices I have made as a parent and the way I was parented myself. Writing of a transgender couple who are visiting the mother’s child (who is with his grandmother) and identifying their child as transgender, Solomon observes how they see in that child what they want to see, rather than what is present. He writes:

Perhaps the immutable error of parenthood is that we give our children what we wanted, whether they want it or not. We heal our wounds with the love we wish we’d received, but are often blind to the wounds we inflict.

How often do I find myself treating my children as I wished to be treated as a child, rather than paying attention to what it is they need? Too frequently. Solomon’s book is full of compassion and insight. It illuminates the darkest parts of humanity – the children we are terrified of having, the people from whom we avert our gaze. There are many questions about genetic testing, about different therapies, about how we can change what nature gave us and the dilemma of whether or not we should. There are no straightforward answers, but what Solomon does show us is the complex necessity of difference and the way that pain and grief can expand our capability to love.


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