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Thank heavens my mother was no cloth monkey!
Bernard and the Cloth Monkey - Judith Bryan
Member Name: catsholiday
Bernard and the Cloth Monkey - Judith Bryan
Advantages: Well written and interesting writing style
Disadvantages: Fairly uncomfortable raeding
BERNARD AND THE CLOTH MONKEY BY Judith Bryan
This is available from Amazon new for £2.20 or for 1p plus postage so the Amazon deal is actually very good.
I picked this up from my local bookcrossing shelf in the Westfield Centre in Derby and it was brand new. I was attracted to the book as the author is part Guyanese and part Jamaican and having lived in Guyana for the first ten years of my life I have a soft spot for anything or anyone coming from that country.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Judith Bryan as I said is of Jamaican and Guyanese heritage but born and brought up in North West London. She trained as a social worker and worked with homeless helping find social housing for about ten years.
She moved to Scotland and now teaches creative writing. This novel was her first and as far as I am aware her only novel and it was awarded a Saga prize for British unpublished black writers of fiction in 1997.
She has however also written a play 'Keeping Mum' and poetry as well as short stories.
Basically there are two main characters, two sisters, Beth (Lisa Beth) and An (Anita) who are the focus of the novel. Dad, the Bernard of the title who dies in the first chapter was a teacher and Mum who is off on a cruise throughout the novel and who is 'The Cloth Monkey' of the title. Anita has a boyfriend Steve and Beth had one, George and a couple of their friends from when they are growing up also pop into the story to help with the sisters remising but don't really play a major role in the story.
Beth is the 'good' sister who returned home leaving a successful career to help her Mum look after her dying father. An ( I did struggle with that name as it just disappeared in the text and just looked like an so I often had to fgo back and check the sentence again) has returned home after her father's death and after her mother has left for her cruise so there is only Beth and An at home.
Beth has put on a lot of weight and sort of accepted her role of carer and now has to think of what the future holds for her now that her father is dead. An is at university and has not been home for years and has suffered a nervous breakdown, had therapy and this is her first return home since this breakdown.
I found the characters were well created and believable, not always very likeable but as the story develops you discover that their home life wasn't quite what it had seemed on the outside. The two sisters have coped or not as the case may be in very different ways with the 'secrets' in the family.
There is a twin sister of An called Greta ( Margaret) who it appears has died but that is another secret that comes out as the novel progresses.
The story is actually really quite disturbing at times as both girls have suffered significant abuse over years within the walls of their family home hidden from the outside world. When Anita Moore returns home from university at the tender age of twenty two she has already had a nervous breakdown and has been away from the family home for three years. During this time her father fell ill and died. Beth who had been helping her mother care for her dying father is now house sitting while their mother is away on a cruise in the Caribbean.
Much has changed in the house, new curtains, furniture and general decor but still the shadow of Bernard, the father is still present.
The title is based on a psychology experiment where by baby monkeys were observed with real monkey mothers, cloth pretend 'mothers' and wire 'mothers' all were fed by their 'mothers' and their behaviour observed. Those with their eal mothers were normal, those with cloth mothers behaved badly but clung hopefully to their cloth 'mothers' while those fed by wire 'mothers' were most disturbed and badly behaved. The girls decided they were monkeys with a cloth 'mother' as they clung to her for support and protection but she was about as useful as a cloth monkey mother.
The story is told through flashbacks to events in the girls' childhood which slowly and rather in the style of a psychological thriller these start to build the story of a family deeply troubled. Bernard it seems is not the model father figure you might think a teacher might be and his control and worse over the family and especially of the girls is 'not seen' it seems by their mother who stands by and lets these things happen, she is the 'Cloth Monkey'.
The story is told partly in these flashbacks and partly through fairy stories. The fairy stories also help to explain the main story too. For example the first story of of a prince and princess who live in a really poor country with starving children so they decide to leave that country. They sail away in a boat made of bananas and arrive in England. They are very happy and they have a baby girl who they decide to call Elizabeth after the Queen as they have been so happy in England. The child is called Lisa Beth. They have two more children who they also decide to name after the Royal family Margaret (Greta) and Anne (Anita).
Another fairy story is the three Billy goats gruff and it turns out Bernard is the Billy goat and the girls have to get past him on the landing upstairs, Mother manages it ( Biggest Billy Goat) but the littlest one gets caught. This is not elaborated upon in the Billy Goat story but the fear and threat are made very evident.
This stirring, unsettling book has all the nasties that you might come across when dealing with a child in care and these are gradually revealed as the story unfolds through flashbacks. The writing doesn't always spell it out but the imagery and fairy tales need to be interpreted. It also brings into the story elements of British black society such as the place of the mother in the family and the ambitions and pressures of a black middle class family.
I can't say I will go rushing to find another one this author's books but it was interesting, not especially enjoyable at times, in fact rather uncomfortable reading. I felt almost voyeuristic at times, as though I was looking in at the family and seeing their rather unpleasant secrets.
I quite liked the style of using fairy tales to tell parts of the story but I am not really that keen on the story itself.
Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
Summary: A rather uncomfortable family story