Saturday, 24 May 2014

Born Twice

Reviewer: JJ Marsh, author of The Beatrice Stubbs series.

What We Thought: This is a surprising book. To be honest, I suspected something mawkish and trite, push-button emotional manipulation which causes uncontrollable sobbing and leaves you no wiser than when you started. I was wrong.

The book is a collection of episodes from the life of Professor Frigerio (a name I found resonant) and his son Paolo. Each is told in spare prose, in beautifully crafted sentences – I was already reaching for the Post-Its in Chapter Two. Pontiggia achieves a clinical detachment through his precise, curt chapters, inviting the reader to observe, learn, judge, accept or rail against the circumstances.

Paolo is born severely disabled. This appears to be partly the fault of the medical profession, partly the fault of his wife and her family. The story explores how the professor learns about his own special needs while coming to terms with those of his son. Frigerio suffers guilt surrounding his own infidelity, tests his theoretical opposition to prejudice against disabled people versus his will to have his son conform, battles with his own resentments towards authority, clashes with his wife and older son regarding how to treat Paolo and discovers how much his younger son has to teach him.

It’s not an easy read. It’s sharply painful and the author’s laser-pointed language doesn’t allow for evasion. You are drawn into this world, constantly comparing ‘What would I do?’ while vacillating between sympathy and infuriation with the narrator. It moved me deeply, but more importantly, made me question my own attitudes. Highly recommended for those who, just once in a while, want to examine what a principle really means.

You'll enjoy this if you liked: Oscar Moore's PWA, Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon, Dr Jamison's An Unquiet Mind.

Avoid if you want: a saccharine weepie with a feelgood ending.

Ideal accompaniments: Iced water with lime, grapefruit and feta salad, and Chopin's Nocturnes.

Genre: Contemporary, in translation

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