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Random Family is a non-fiction book about two Latino women and their families in the Bronx. Jessica and Coco live on East Tremont, a road in an area notorious for gangs, drug dealers, violence and deprivation. They are linked together both through friendship and Coco's relationship with Jessica's brother, Cesar. This book follows their stories over ten years, from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties as they move from being teenagers to grandparents in their thirties. Their lives and those of their families are hard, brutal and full of attitudes and ideas that are completely opposite to all those that we consider 'normal'.
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is an American journalist who writes for publications such as The New York Times and has a slew of university qualifications in sociology, philosophy, modern literature and law.
Fitting ten years of life into 350 pages was always going to be a mammoth occupation and the first thing you are hit with are the sheer number of names to get your head around. There are the constants: Jessica and her mother, brother and children, Coco and her children. Then there are the minor characters, the satellites around these characters: lovers, friends, distant family, father figures, drug dealers, gang members and muggers. Relationships are fluid, easily made and easily broken with none of the disapproval of this promiscuity that would be encountered in other communities. Contraception seems to be ignored on the whole and children come along with depressing regularity, and are accepted...but welcomed only if their presence causes their partner to see them as a 'wife' or primary girlfriend. Coco has two children by the age of 15, one by Cesar and one by an old boyfriend conceived when Cesar was in prison. By 19 she is pregnant with her third (by Cesar again) but Cesar is back in prison. Jessica has got involved with a drug lord who showers her with material goods, but beats her and the children-his arrest and conviction lead to her incarceration too and she leaves her three children with a family friend.
Drugs are all encompassing. Dealers proliferate and people slip in and out of the business when they need money but there seem to be boundaries around their general use. Jessica's mother becomes addicted and is given cocaine in return for babysitting, but is disgusted when her boyfriend leaves his heroin works within reach of the children. The children are neglected and abused, occasionally sexually and left with friends and acquaintances, their upbringing is often lax and nomadic. All of this seems to be accepted by the family as completely normal, this is part of their everyday life along with the ever present threat of violence. There is a lot of violence in this book from gangland killings to domestic violence and armed robbery is a common way of supplementing earnings. It is all very territory based and narrow, your world is your block or street - it is how you identify yourself.
All of this is absolutely fascinating but it can feel a bit monotonous after a while, there is just so much going on that after a while there is a certain desensitisation to the drama. It is also very depressing watching these women descend on a downward spiral from their bright, hopeful teens to prison hardened, weary grandmothers in the space of a mere decade and a bit (the book seems to go slightly further than the ten year remit). Their potential is crushed and so is that of those around them, there seems to be little hope for them. However in the background we get occasional glimpse of individuals and families who are not so unlucky, who are struggling but are not so involved in the drugs and drama of these two women. It is frustrating to not know the circumstances of the research that LeBlanc carried out and how she made contact with the women. The data she has collected is shockingly intimate from love letters to verbatim conversations about abuse, sex and the mechanics of the drugs industry. How normal is this situation, these lives in the Bronx-are they the norm? There is no judgement, no analysis and it appears no intervention or advice given by LeBlanc, fair enough, but I am not sure I could stay so distant after 10 years. I certainly could not stand back and watch some of the behaviour that went on. It was interesting to see the children of these women grow up and the choices and paths that they took, following their elders for the most part and again I am surprised at the level of detail elicited by LeBlanc from them.
The book is written in the third person with conversations and letters included verbatim if necessary. The narrative is very fluid and meanders its way around family members, illuminating bits here and there before moving on to another person in the same paragraph. This makes it both very easy to read and incredibly hard to follow the strands of one person's life and relationships. We are given an immense amount of detail but often it feels completely without depth, that we are missing the real person and seeing only a stereotype. This amount of detail I found initially compelling but after a while I had to read the book in small doses and only when I was alert or I got confused, bored or sidetracked.
This is an insight into another side of America, those who live on welfare or the minimum wage and the way they construct their lives in an incredibly difficult and often dangerous environment. Their lives seem to be lived faster and any potential or talent that they have seems to be subsumed by their environment and eventually destroyed. When I was researching this review I came across an article by a Bronx physician recommending this book to social workers and health care professionals who work in the Bronx to get an idea of why their service users are the way they are. But we ask again how many of the individuals who live in the Bronx are actually like this, to what extent is this 'normal' life, is this a truly representative 'random family'?
So, would I recommend it? Yes and no. Its not a book for everyone as many people would find the level of detail and the narrative writing style hard going after a while. The book is sad, happy, disgusting, heart-warming, jaw dropping and I was astonished that the people featured in the book were able to keep happy and keep upbeat in the situations that they found themselves in, which would no doubt crush many others. It is definite evidence of the adaptability of human beings to exist in these sorts of environments and lifestyles, but also how poverty can devastate ambition, potential, talent, youth, childhood, body and soul but still leave hope. Life is cheap and precarious, people are disposable and there is little difference in the minds of many of the family members between prison and the street. It is definitely a book that is hard to read lightly or forget easily, the sheer disparity between the lives that most of us lead and the lives of this family is shocking and raises lots of pertinent questions about how these sort of ghettos can be avoided. It is also an upsetting book and I was itching to lean into their lives and shriek at them about some of their choices, but it definitely gave me an understanding into the mindset of people when they do make these decisions. Overall it is a powerful and intense book, deserving of all the awards and plaudits it has received, but also of the criticisms it has garnered as well.
***ISBN and Price***
RRP is £7.99