Reviewed by Annabel
Turning twenty-one, not much about me changed, physically speaking. I didn’t grow any taller. I didn’t grow any fatter. Pinch me and you’ll find no additional flesh on these bones. Even if we were the sole survivors of a plane wreck, you wouldn’t eat me for dinner.
But nothing stayed the same either. My name grew longer, officially at least, and my bank balance got bigger – MUCH bigger. I have a bona fide Brit passport now and I’m not so sure where home is any more.
Who am I? Good question. I started out as Sonny Anderson. Now my official same is Sonny Anderson Agelaste-Bim, but I still go by Sonny Anderson. Your son. Twenty-one-year-old recovering addict and multi-millionaire. Pleased to (not) meet you.
This is how Sonny introduces himself to us, or, more strictly speaking, he’s talking to his mother, whom he hasn’t seen since he was abducted from her aged five and taken to live with his father Guru Agelaste-Bim in a remote village in Brazil, home of his cult. Sonny was rescued from that by Thomas, who had been Bim’s right hand man and they spent his teenage years in Redondo Beach, California. It’s fair to say his early teens had some bad times with drugs etc – but he outgrew it, but as a former addict he’s still a bunch of neuroses including misphonia (a negative physical reaction to ‘kissy sucky mouth-noises’), and fear of envelopes.
Sonny’s personality comes through right from the start of this novel. When, near the beginning, we hear he inherited millions from his father’s estate on his twenty-first birthday, we’re already on his side and know he won’t do anything stupid with it.
It is Thomas that suggests he goes on a trip to England – to visit all the locations in Sonny’s favourite film, Shaun of the Dead – (aka SOTD, a British comedy zombie film starring Simon Pegg). That’s a distraction though, marvelous as the film really is, (I love it!), Thomas also gives him names and addresses of four people, from Sonny’s past who knew his parents, to look up. Thomas also stashes five numbered envelopes in Sonny’s backpack and gives him a box of Dictaphone cassettes recorded by the Guru.
Before he knows it, Sonny is on the plane, off in search of his family history, finding himself and looking for his mum. Later in his hotel suffering from jetlag, Sonny puts his two lists on the bed:
SOTD locations, or Existential Quest? My head says SOTD; my stupid heart says otherwise.
I flip a coin. Existential Quest it is.
Sonny’s Existential Quest starts by taking him to Devon to visit Doris – she’s chronologically the first to know his father, having been his landlady before he became a guru. It is after his time with Doris, whom his father had called Mrs C, that he finds Thomas’s letters and he fearfully opens the first one.
When you’ve read these letters, I will completely understand if you choose to cut me off. Andrew and Ruth have both promised to be there for you if you need someone to talk to. They are both good people. The best.
This is when he realises that Thomas has had a former life that is very different to that of his loving guardian. Sonny is brave enough to continue his quest and the narrative continues as he visits Ruth, Andrew and finally Marsha Ray, travelling up and down the country. McDonagh alternates between the visits, the letters and the tapes; the gradual reveal of what happened seen through all these different eyes generates real suspense and there are shocks in store for Sonny.
Sonny is somewhat of a pleasant rarity in novels, he’s a reliable narrator. He’s been an outsider for so long – a Brit who feels more American than British. He may be twenty-one, but still has a lot of growing up to do, yet in other ways he is quite mature. McDonagh gives him an authentic voice that is full of wit and candour. He has a childish enthusiasm for using new odd words, yet realises when he needs the reassurance of finding an NA meeting to bolster his confidence, he’s on the cusp of becoming an adult. I liked the fact that he was slightly older than the usual protagonists in ‘coming of age’ stories.
I was already a fan of SOTD, so got most (I hope) of the references in the book – including the Cornetto ice-cream on the cover. I don’t think it is necessary to have seen the film to enjoy this story, but if you can stand an hilarious gory zombie movie full of British comedians and actors you’ll recognise, with Bill Nighy stealing every scene he’s in – you will want to see it.
Like McDonagh’s previous novels, this is not a long book either. At under 200 pages it moves at a fair clip, yet never feels rushed. Her writing style is concise but nothing is missing. The final pay-off, when it comes, was pitch perfect! Sonny is a brilliant creation, and I’d love to read what he did next with all those millions.
In the interest of full disclosure, Martine and I have never met, but we are Facebook friends after I reviewed her first two novels. Narcissism for Beginners was crowdfunded by Unbound – and I pledged towards this book.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Martine McDonagh, Narcissism for Beginners (Unbound, 2017). 9781783523443, 208pp., hardback.
Also read Annabel’s Q&A with Martine here
BUY Narcissism for Beginners from the Book Depository.