This is a review of the 2011 book 'Bed' by David Whitehouse. The book is the first by this author although he has written for a number of top broadsheets before publishing this book. If you are after a unique or strange read, and enjoy watching documentaries about people who weigh an awful lot then perhaps this book is for you!
A bit about the book
In Bed, the book is narrated by Mal's younger brother (whose name we never find out) and it documents the events leading to Mal's decision to never leave his bed ever again. As a child, Mal is strange. He dislikes wearing clothes and always ruins the family holidays, making them return quickly home. As Mal stays in bed, the weight piles on. The bedroom gets bigger and bigger as his family knock down walls in the home to accommodate the ever growing Mal. To try and bring some sense to him, his mother buys a count down clock which documents how long Mal has spent in bed. This just becomes a challenge for Mal to see how long he can make the clock count for. Is 20 years long enough?
We never actually find out Mal's motivations for staying in bed, not can we understand why his family pander to his whim. His mother brings him food all day long making him reach an estimated 100 stone in weight.
UK and USA
The book is set in England with part of Mal's brother's time spent going over to America to meet a lady who cared for her obese husband and watched him die. She then donated her kitchen trailer to Mal's family to help them cope with the lack of space.
Mal's brother is desperate to escape the family home and Mal's condition which takes over his parent's lives. He is in love with Lou who used to be Mal's girlfriend and has never left the scene, even living in a tent on the front garden to try and make Mal make sense. How she manages this in the English weather puzzled me! The brother just finds himself drawn back to his family and spends all his time thinking about Mal and trying to understand what is happening to him. Mal's mum and dad are quite strange too, allowing him to remain in bed despite what it is doing to his body and life. His mum is definitely a feeder and his dad retreats to the attic to work on his inventions.
Mal gets too big to leave the house and doesn't want to get out of bed anyway. The problem is when he dies, the house will not withstand its front being taken out to remove Mal's body. He will have to be 'chopped up and removed in bags' the narrator says. His father, who is a lift engineer works for years in the attic and no one knows what he is inventing (apart from a fishing rod which isn't very good). He uses his skill and knowledge to help his obese son in the best way he knows how.
The other son
Mal's brother (the unnamed narrator) always seems to come second to Mal in the book. His parents give Mal all the love and attention. Towards the end of the timeline, the two brothers are bed bound due to the narrator having had an accident where he has badly broken his legs (we find out why towards the end of the book). It is an ironic situation, but his mother thrives on caring for her two boys despite the fact that they are both over 40.
Now and then
The book jumps around a timeline with short chapters so you do have to figure out where we are in the story some of the time. This is necessary to keep the suspense of what is happening whilst dotting around finding explanations for various parts of the story.
There is a lot of description about Mal's size and what has happened to his body. Mal's brother (the narrator) is a butcher by trade and compares his work to Mal, wondering what is going on under his enormous stretched skin. It is quite graphic so not one for a delicate mind. There are other parallels drawn between the two brothers throughout the book from girlfriends to weight issues.
I could have written a lot more about this book, but obviously as you may want to read it yourself I don't want to give away too much about the story line. I was really interested in how the author wrote about such a unique subject and can only think he must have done a lot of research and watched lots of documentaries on morbidly obese people. The issues behind Mal's decision to stay in bed are either very complex or very simple. He suggests that he never wanted to lead a normal life, does not want responsibilities and has to be the first and best at everything (think record breakers!) so perhaps his own personal challenge brings him all the happiness in the world and gives his parents a purpose, challenge and something to do. I have given the book 5/5 because whilst it wasn't perfect, I can't stop thinking about it and that usually means it's been a good read.
PS: My copy is on readitswapit now so if you're quick you could get it for a swap.