John Egan is an 11 year old boy growing up in a small Irish village with his mother, father and grandmother. In most ways, he is a normal little boy, but two things make him stand out. One is that he is 6 foot tall and towers over his schoolfriends. The other is that he strongly believes that he can detect lies and should have a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
He is very aware of his surroundings and knows that something is not right with his family. They lie to him too often and he begins to feel increasingly uncomfortable, both with them and his best friend. Then his life changes when his parents suddenly up sticks and take him to Dublin to live. That is where things start to spiral out of control for John. Can he pick up the pieces of his life, or will it tip him over the edge?
This is another entry into last year's Booker Prize, although I didn't realise until after I'd started reading it. I was attracted to the book because of the idea of a woman in her late 30s delving into the mind of a young boy about to hit puberty. I didn't have much of an idea about young boys when I was a young girl, let alone now.
None of the characters in the book are particularly likeable, nor do I think we are supposed to like them. I did feel sorry for John; reading about his insecurities made me remember my own when I was his age, but at the same time there is something, although not clear at first, vaguely disturbing about him. He escapes reality by climbing back into himself and living in a daydream, but he also picks up on things that seemingly have no foundation, only for us later to find out that he wasn't imagining them. I don't have much experience with young boys, but this did seem like a very natural portrayal and certainly some of the issues that John has, I could relate with when remembering my own childhood.
Although they don't mistreat John, his parents and grandmother don't particularly pay a lot of attention to him. His father constantly promises things that he doesn't deliver, his mother keeps secrets from him and his grandmother tolerates him. Michael, the father, doesn't work. He left his job because it made him unhappy and so relies on his mother for financial support, which she resents. I thought the three of them were well-portrayed. They are not people I would like to meet, but they seemed all the more realistic for this.
I really enjoyed the first half of the book, mainly because the author built up the atmosphere really well. It was clear that something was not right with John, but it was hard to tell what and I really couldn't tell where the book was going, which made it all the more enjoyable. The second half of the book wasn't quite so good, although I still read it with great gusto. I thought that the book was heading somewhere other than where it went and I couldn't help but feel as I read through it that the author hadn't known where the book was going either and so tried to tie the ends up and finish it too quickly. There is a bit of a shock towards the end of the book, but the way that is handled didn't seem to fit the book and I was left a little disappointed. I would have also liked to find out where the author was going with the lie detection story. This did cause quite a lot of trouble for John. More importantly, at one point, it did seem that he might really be a human lie detector, but this angle then just disappeared from the story.
I did like the author's style of writing. It is crisp, yet manages to maintain an air of mystery at the same time, which I found intriguing. The story is told through the eyes of John; everything we find out about his family and acquaintances is the way that he sees it. This adds to the slightly disturbing quality of the book, which I think made it all the more readable.
On the whole, although I think the book would have been much better if the second half was as good as the first, this is still a very good book and one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. It gave me a fresh insight into the problems of growing up and it is easy to see how influential family members can be on young, enquiring minds. I'm glad it didn't win the Booker Prize, but I can certainly see why it might have been in the running for it. Recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £5.99. Published by Canongate Books, it has 256 pages. ISBN: 1841957348
Ireland, 1971, John Egan is a misfit, 'a twelve year old in the body of a grown man with the voice of a giant who insists on the ridiculous truth'. With an obsession for the Guinness Book of Records and faith in his ability to detect when adults are lying, John remains hopeful despite the unfortunate cards life deals him. During one year in John's life, from his voice breaking, through the breaking-up of his home life, to the near collapse of his sanity, we witness the gradual unsticking of John's mind, and the trouble that creates for him and his family.