Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
This is a heartbreaking ache of a book: it explores some harrowing themes, opens doors to experiences we should all be aware of, and is gripping and terrifyingly tense. But there’s a joy glowing at the heart of Home that elevates it above your average tear-jerker or page-turner. A joy that belongs to four (and-a-half) year-old Jesika.
The story is told through little Jesika’s eyes. Words and facts are presented as she perceives them, rather than how they are. So the ‘mould’ on the wall becomes ‘moles,’ a ‘chest infection’ a ‘chesty fecshun,’ and one of the opening lines reads:
My fayvrit green pen is on the windysill, where I hided it from Toby, and I take it and squeeze ahind the telly to get to the peeling-paper.
It takes a little while to adjust to this idiosyncratic narration. At first some of the characters felt unsubtly drawn — larger-than-life caricatures. But as I settled into Jesika’s viewpoint, I realised that, seen through her eyes, they were perfectly portrayed. In the end, the narration is nothing but charming, and it’s impossible not to fall for this little girl’s heart and bravery.
Her viewpoint also serves two very useful functions. Crucially, the naive perspective allows a grim subject matter to be explored delicately. When a pre-school friend tells her a disturbing secret, Jesika doesn’t really understand what’s going on, so we get to witness alongside her, always a step removed from the brutal truth. As I read, I was constantly a little worried the storyline would tip over into gratuitousness, but thankfully the painful themes were covered elegantly throughout, thanks largely to the use of Jesika’s limited understanding.
I mainly enjoyed the delightful insight into the mind of a four-year-old child. The empathy in these pages is really quite humbling. Amanda Berriman shows such depth of understanding, such tenderness and patience with her character, that I have no doubt she’s captured how pre-schoolers really think. In a world where grown-ups frame ‘not making things harder’ as being ‘helpful,’ Jesika feels deep pride and validation in what a helpful girl she is, despite being too little to actually help at all.
At another point, Jesika’s mum is frustrated at her slowness walking home in the rain, but Jesika has let go of her brother’s buggy because she’s spotted the rainbow made by some oil in a puddle:
I know a rainbow puddle is something so special and Mummy needs to see it.
The thought of this scene has made me bite my tongue with my own little ones more than once since reading it — the whole book serves as a handy tract on compassionate parenting.
There are other things Home does exceptionally well. The way Jesika grows and learns through the course of the book is at once heartbreaking and inspiring. And I love how her mother, Tina, acts perfectly, despite all the challenges of ill health, no income or support, and a dangerously inadequate rental. Echoes of Emma Donoghue’s Room are strong. Not just the child-centred language, but also the mother trying to be kind, and succeeding, from deep pit of despair. Wherever the blame lies for this family’s desperate situation, it is decidedly not at Tina’s door. She is a model for all of us.
Home deals with heavy themes, but the central tragedy of Jesika’s life isn’t the housing crisis she doesn’t know she’s at the centre of, or the dark adult things she doesn’t understand; it’s simply being four. Trying to understand the world, and get the world to understand her. The trials of crossing that huge gulf are the ones that preoccupy Jesika, and that loomed largest in the book for me.
And that tragedy is tempered throughout by the joy I mentioned. An innocent, hopeful, bittersweet joy that lights up this book from within. Not the horribleness, but the happiness that leaches through despite itself.
I’ve seen many review-column mentions of the terrible childhood Jesika endures, but, in actual fact, all Jesika really wants is her family. Jesika’s mum has set her up well, and her priorities are good. We glimpse how impossible her mum’s life is, but we inhabit Jesika’s world. She sees the joy in the things grown-ups find unbearable — a peeling, mouldy corner of wallpaper is her special place where she can draw. Faced with the unknown pleasures of kids TV on DVD, she just wants to watch a video clip of her little brother. While her mum negotiates the social shame of accepting charity, Jesika just sees kindness and friends. She doesn’t crave the bigger houses she visits, despite her awe at their trampolines and bird tables, she just wants to go back ‘home.’
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at those precious stolen moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin.
Amanda Berriman, Home (Doubleday, 2018). 978-0857525314, 352pp., hardback.
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