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Memory in the Flesh by Ahlam Mosteghanami: Review

Cover image of the book Memory in the Flesh by the Algerian author Ahlam Mosteghanami

Where would novelists be if they couldn’t write about love? Platonic love; young love; second-time-around love; lost love; unrequited love; love for one’s country: you name it, there’s a novel (probably more like hundreds of them) in which love will feature in some guise or other.

It’s no surprise therefore to find this is the emotion at the heart of Ahlam Mosteghanami‘s award winning novel Memory in the Flesh. Though you shouldn’t pick up this book expecting love of the hearts and flowers variety. This is a novel  about the pain and loss of love. The searing pain felt when a relationship ends. The pain experienced from the discovery that an ideal for which you fought has come to nothing.

Ahlam Mosteghanami tells her story from the perspective of Khalid, a former Algerian freedom fighter who lost an arm in the struggle for his country’s independence from France. Exiled in Paris he turned to painting where he became a respected artist.  The city is where he met the daughter of a former comrade in arms, and fell in love. Ahlam (yes she has the same name as the author) is half his age, someone Khalid remembers as a baby.

When the book opens, the relationship is over. Khalid is writing a book about his infatuation with Ahlam. He feels betrayed by his former lover who has already published a book about the affair. He wants to set the record straight. So he spends much of the time trying to tell us just how much he loved her and how she made him feel. 

And where the novel began to fall apart for me. It takes a skilled novelist to capture the full intensity of one person’s feelings for another and to help us understand the essential nature of a person we have never met in the flesh. Ahlam Mosteghanami’s approach is to use analogies: layer upon layer of them and many of them so fanciful they sound nonsensical.

One minute Ahlam is a colour, the next she is compared to the bridges of Algeria that Ahlam repeatedly paints but only a few pages later we learn she is “like the waters of Granada, transparent like nostalgia with a distinctive taste…” Whatever that means. Instead of dazzling and entrancing me as a reader, I found the repeated use of similies and metaphors increasingly tedious.

Sadly, Ahlam’s minute dissection of his love overwhelms the more interesting aspect of the book which deals with the loss of idealism. The final section sees Khalid make his first return visit to his home city of Constantine, expecting to see how his young man’s dreams have been fulfilled in this now independent nation. Instead he discovers the city has lost its soul, drained of colour and ambition. It is now only a city ‘ that woke up the way it went to bed, wearing the same sad and gloomy colours.’

Memory in the Flesh is considered a landmark book in the history of this part of the world. It’s the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman.  In writing in Arabic, Ahlam Mosteghanami was making her stance against her country’s colonial heritage and its semi official language of French. Her dedication (to her father Malek Haddad) makes evident her point of view.

To the memory of Malek Haddad, son of Constantine, who swore after the independence of Algeria not to write in a language that was not his. The blank page assassinated him. He died by the might of his silence to become a martyr of the Arabic language and the first writer ever to be silent, grieving, and passionate on its behalf.

If Mosteghanami had only focused on the experience of people like Malek and Khalid, champions of the cause of freedom and independence, I would have found reading her novel a more enriching experience.

Memory In The Flesh by Ahlam Mosteghanami: End Notes

About the Book: Memory In The Flesh was published first in Beirut by Dar al adab in 1993 under the title Zakirat el Jassad. It was well received, becoming the recipient of the Naguib Mahfouz literary prize in 1998. The novel was not available in English until translated by the American University of Cairo in 2000. Bloomsbury Publishing issued a new edition under the title of The Bridges of Constantine) in 2013.

Mosteghanami went on to write two sequels: Fawda el Hawas (The Chaos of Senses) in 1997 and Aber Sareer (Bed Hopper) in 2003.

Photo credit” Wikipedia

About the Author: Ahlam Mosteghanami was born in Tunis, the daughter of a militant political activist who was forced into exile during the Algerian liberation war. Following independence, the family returned to Algeria where her family secured high office in the country’s first independent government. 

Mosteghanami became a radio host, a household name with a show on national radio at the age of 17. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris then moved to the Lebanon with her husband and children.

Memory In The Flesh was her first published novel. She’s now written four in all, together with several poetry anthologies.

Why Did I Read This Book? I was looking for an Algerian author as part of my World of Literature project. I could have taken the easy path and gone for Albert Camus but that seemed too obvious a choice. There were a few authors I came across including the very prolific Mohammed Dib but a lot of these writers don’t have English translations, or if they, do they’re either hard to come by or expensive.

Ahlam Mosteghanami (sometimes her first name is spelled Ahlem) was one of the few I could lay my hands on. The fact it was described as a landmark in Algerian fiction sold it to me.

By Way of Explanation… I first posted this review in 2013. I’m gradually revisiting older posts, changing from the old classic editor to the new Gutenburg block editor . I’m hoping this will make it easier for me to switch to a Gutenburg-compatible theme. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone: Tense Portrait of Grief

Cover of The Jump by Doug Johnstone

The Jump is categorised as a thriller but I’d describe it as more of a study of grief; in particular the overwhelming, all-absorbing suffering resulting from the inexplicable death of a child. 

Johnstone takes us into the world of a middle-aged mother whose teenage son jumped to his death from the Forth Road Bridge six months earlier.  Now every day she re-lives his last moments, repeatedly watching CCTV footage of his final moments and standing on the spot where he climbed over the railing and threw himself into the freezing, swirling esturial waters of the Forth 150 feet below.

Burning Questions

Every moment of every day, Ellie Sharp’s brain is occupied with two questions: Why did Logan kill himself?  Why couldn’t I stop him? 

She couldn’t prevent her son’s death. But one day, she spots another teenage boy poised precariously on the wrong side of the barrier, “holding onto the railing behind his back, looking down at the water”. With carefully selected words and disclosure of her own experience, she gains the boy’s trust and coaxes him back to safety.

Her discovery that this distraught young lad is drenched in blood, marks the beginning of an entanglement in his life and that of his dysfunctional family. 

Sam reminds her so much of her dead son. If Ellie can save him, she might atone for the guilt she feels over his death. Some of her consequent actions are rash and irrational but, of course we have to remember that Ellie is so subsumed by grief she is not fully capable of thinking coherently.

The Jump builds in tension from this point on with the customary twists and turns and unexpected developments you’d expect in a thriller. This element of the book didn’t especially hold my attention however. I was far more interested in Ellie’s mental state and the effect overwhelming grief has on her and her husband.

Scars of Grief

Doug Johnstone’s portrayal of Ellie’s obsessive behaviour as a way of dealing with grief, is intensely emotional. This is a woman whose entire existence now revolves around her son and what happened a few months earlier. She never eats, endlessly checks Logan’s Facebook page and carries the scars of her grief in tattoos she’s acquired since his death. Only when she swims in the Forth, fighting against the strong currents to the point of exhaustion, does she experience any relief from grief.

Her husband Ben is similarly obsessed. Where Ellie turns to intense physical activity to escape from reality, he plunges into the world of conspiracy theories. Every day it seems he finds a new line of enquiry, his “investigations” fuelled by discussions with other suicide conspiracy theorists.

So deeply ensnared are they in their own worlds of grief, that they barely acknowledge each other’s existence let alone talk about their son. It takes another near tragedy to show them a way back, if not to happiness then at least to togetherness.

The Jump does edge close to an obsessive interest in Ellie’s state of mind. I can fully appreciate that some readers would be turned off by the repetitive nature of passages that detail her daily routine. But that wasn’t my reaction; after all, if you’re going to make your main character an obsessive woman, then repetitiveness has to figure largely in the depiction otherwise it simply doesn’t ring true.

That question of authenticity was really the key to my appreciation of The Jump. It does have the preposterous elements usually found in a thriller but it also has a high quota of realism. There were times I questioned Ellie’s actions (she sails a bit close to the wind in her relationship with Sam) but I never questioned the depth of her despair.

The Jump by Doug Johnstone: End Notes

About the Author: Doug Johnstone is a writer, musician and journalist based in Edinburgh. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and writer in residence at the University of Strathclyde. Since 1999 he has worked as a freelance arts journalist, primarily covering music and literature. His twelfth novel, The Big Chill, was published by Orenda Books in August 2020.

About the book: The Jump, was published by Faber & Faber in August 2015. It was Johnstone’s seventh novel.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Cover of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

It was hard to escape Where the Crawdads Sing a few years back. It was on multiple best seller charts and nominated for several big literary prizes. Commercial success was further cemented when the novel was selected for Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club in September 2018.

I tend to avoid books that get so much visibility because they usually turn out to be nowhere near as remarkable as all the marketing suggests. So I wasn’t all that enthused when it was chosen for our next book club read.

But the book proved to be substantially better than I expected. Though I wasn’t completely sold on the plot and thought the ending was weak, I loved the way Delia Owens conveyed the spirit of the North Carolinan marshlands in which the novel is set.

Marsh is not swamp. Marsh is a space of light, here grass grows in water, and water flows in the sky. Slow-moving creeks wander, carrying the orb of the sun with them to the sea, and long-legged birds lit with unexpected grace – as though not built to fly – aainst te roar of a thousand snow geese.

I also appreciated the vivid characterisation of Kya Clark, a girl we follow as she grows up alone in the marshes, relying on her wits to survive.

Where the Crawdads Sing is part coming-of-age story and part romance wrapped into a tale about a possible murder. It follows two timelines that slowly come together. One tracks Kya from the point when as a six-year-old, she is left abandoned, first by her mother and then gradually by her siblings. Eventually even her drunken, abusive father disappears, leaving her with little food, no money in a rough and ready shack in the swamplands.

Kya can’t read or write. But she learns how to hide from school truant officers, how to hunt for food and gather mussels to sell to shopkeepers in the nearest town. She spends her days fishing and drawing and painting the wildlife she observes around her and her collection of seashells.

Delia Owens gives Kya an extraordinary ability to observe the natural world, drawing comfort from it and insights that she uses to comprehend the human world. Nature is her nurse, confidant and family.

Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.

It’s a solitary life but it’s preferable to the hostility she faces as a black child whenever she ventures into the town. As she grows into adolescence the “Marsh Girl” begins to attract attention from two local boys. Kindly working class boy Tate becomes her first friend, building her confidence with gifts of rare bird feathers and teaching her how to read and write. When he leaves for university, arrogant posh boy and local football star Chase Andrews comes sniffing around.

The second narrative thread of Where the Crawdads Sing begins a few years later with the discovery of Chase’s body. In the intervening years, Kya has become a celebrated author of beautifully illustrated reference books on shells and seabirds. The royalties have enabled her to improve the shack with running water and furnishings. But the suspicions of the community about this feral child have never disappeared so the murder investigation invariably draws Kya into its net.

The crime element didn’t work too well for me. It does act as a counterpoint to the romance, helping pull the novel back from the brink of sentimentality. But for me, the story of a child abandoned by family and society who finds solace and strength in nature, was strong enough to stand on its own, particularly when it’s delivered alongside lush descriptions of nature.

The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.

Delia Owens is at her most effective when she’s looking at nature through Kya’s eyes, sitting with her on the shoreline watching the shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s affinity with the gulls who circle and swoop around the creek and her fascination with shells and feathers are evoked so vividly that the finer details of the plot became almost irrelevant.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: EndNotes

About the Author: Delia Owens was born in Georgia, USA. Though she loved writing, she decided to make science her career.

She received a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. in Animal Behaviour from the University of California. 

She went on to study hyenas, lions and elephants in Botswana and undertake conservation work with her husband in Zambia.

Where The Crawdads Sing is her debut novel though she had previously co-authored three internationally bestselling nonfiction books about her life as a wildlife scientist.

About the book: Where The Crawdads Sing was published in 2018. By October 2019 it had sold four million copies. It topped The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2019 and The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2020 for a combined 32 non-consecutive weeks.

The title originated with Delia Owens’ mother who encouraged her young daughter to explore deep into the oak forests near their home. “Go way out yonder where the crawdads sing,” she would tell her daughter.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

It’s taken me almost three months to get through The Small House at Allington, book number five in the Chronicles of Barsetshire.

It was a lengthy read – my edition totalled 695 pages. But reading all the previous books in the series had got me accustomed to Anthony Trollope’s verbosity. Dr Thorne (book number 3) was more than 500 pages and Framley Parsonage (number 4 in the series) had 573.

I came to love those doorsteppers for their wit and satirical commentary about the church, politics and the aristocracy. They also had some utterly memorable characters like Mrs Proudie, the Bishop’s wife; Septimus Harding, the meek, elderly warden of almshouses and Obadiah Slope, a brash and unctuous social climber. 

Sadly, The Small House at Allington, had few of those elements. Instead of intrigues in the bishopric palaces and grand country estates, we get inter-woven tales of thwarted romances, unrequited love and marriage in all its guises.

Most of the plot revolves around the two Dale sisters who live with their widowed mother at the Small House. It’s a grace and favour house owned by Squire Dale, brother in law to Mrs Dale.

The squire’s cherished wish is that Bell will marry his nephew and heir Bernard and inherit the whole estate. But he is thwarted in his aim because Bell rejects the marriage proposal and marries the local doctor instead.

Lily falls deeply in love with Bernard’s friend, the handsome Adolphus Crosbie, not realising that he’s a self-seeking social climber. Just weeks after his engagement, Crosbie decides marriage with an Earl’s daughter is a more -advantageous match. He ditches Lily and gets hitched to the Lady, believing that association with the de Courcy family will help him rise in the world.

He gets his come upance when the de Courcy family’s financial status is revealed to be little more than smoke and mirrors. And his marriage bed turns distinctly chilly when his Lady wife turns out to be a bore, always whining that she has no social life and no carriage. Adolphus begins to wish he’d married Lily after all.

There are other stories in the background, most of which relate to portrayals of marriage. Trollope seems to be something of a cynic when it comes to affairs of the heart. Although Bell does marry for love, the majority of the featured couples marry for reasons of expediency. Making a “good match” is shown as especially important in the upper echelons of society, helping to advance the status of the dynasty or protecting its interests. But the result is a sterile life where the two people involved have little to say to each other and can barely tolerate being in the same room.

That theme, and some scenes set in a London boarding house, are about the most interesting aspects of The Small House at Allington. The plot is OK, but Trollope takes an age over it and could easily have wrapped up the whole novel with considerably fewer pages. I could have forgiven him his bagginess if only he’d given us some sparkling characters. But I found most of them to be lacking dynamism.

Lily is meant to be the heroine. Early on in the novel, Trollope introduces her thus:

Lilian Dale, dear Lily Dale – for my reader must know that she is to be very dear, and that my story will be nothing to him if he do not love Lily Dale… 

When Lily’s heart is broken she doesn’t succumb to weeping and wailing. Nor does she collapse under the strain of her abandonment (though she does succumb to scarlet fever). She just carries on her life; playing matchmaker on behalf of her sister, teasing the gardener and generally acting in a kindly way to all.

Her refusal to say anything bad about the man who jilted her, shows admirable decency. We can also admire the way she steadfastly refuses to marry long time friend Johnny Eames. He was once a hobbledehoy but is now a fine, upstanding young man with a good future ahead of him. Lily’s mother thinks he’s the perfect match for her daughter. Her uncle and sister are in agreement. But Lily is adamant: her heart still belongs to Crosbie.

I imagine contemporary readers wanted Trollope to give her a happy ending, but they don’t get it. Lily in effect resigns herself to widowhood.

There is only so much fortitude and forbearance I can take. And Lily wore me out on that score. The more she insisted Crosbie would always be the love of her life, the more she closed her mind to other people’s opinions he’d acted a cad, the more frustrated I became. Even Trollope ended up less than enamoured with his heroine. In his autobiography he commented:

In the love with which she has been greeted, I have hardly joined with much enthusiasm, feeling that she is somewhat of a female prig.

Former British Prime Minister John Major who was a fan of Trollope’s work, declared The Small House at Allington to be his favourite book of all time. It certainly isn’t mine. In fact its the least interesting of all the Barset novels I’ve read. I’m just hoping that the final book – Last Chronicle of Barset – marks a return to his previous form.

Maigret And The Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon

Cover of Maigret and the Headless Corpse by George Simenon, showing. a view through the window of a bistro

George Simenon’s celebrated Inspector Maigret series has kept me company during many treadmill miles and hotel nights.

I’ve never read any of the books until recently but I’ve experienced about 20 audio versions over the years. My favourites are the old radio broadcasts I found via ITunes, starring Maurice Denham as the French detective. I was surprised to discover they were commissioned by BBC Radio 3 in 1976; I’d have dated them much earlier – the 1950s even. They have a comforting crackly sound track and are rather under-recorded but I loved the atmosphere they conveyed.

Maigret And The Headless Corpse has now become the first time I’ve encountered the Inspector on the page. It was published in French in 1955, the 47th title in a series that began in 1931 and came to an end with book number 75, Maigret and Monsieur Charles in 1972.

As in so many of these books, the storyline of Maigret And The Headless Corpse is quite straightforward. There are none of the twisty plots or dramatic revelations you get in most detective fiction.

It begins with the discovery of a dismembered body, at a lock along the Canal St-Martin, in the northern part of Paris. Maigret and his young assistant Lapointe believe there is a connection between the corpse and a bistro along the canal bank whose owner has gone missing.

But the man’s wife is unperturbed by her husband’s disappearance or the possibility he might have been murdered. Maigret is fascinated by Madam Calas. She was pretty once he surmised but now her mouth sags and there are deep circles under her eyes. She seems completely weary, lacking all interest in life and indifferent to what people think of her.

His interest in discovering what happened to bring this woman to such a low point, has Maigret return repeatedly to the bistro.

There was no lack of colourful individuals in a neighbourhood like Quai de Valmay. But he had seldom encountered the kind of inertia he had seen in that woman. It was hard to explain. When most people look at you there is some sort of exchange, however small. A contact is established even if that contact is a kind of defiance.
With her, on the contrary, there was nothing.

It doesn’t take Maigret long to discover Madam Calas has lovers and she’s a drinker.

Both features of her life explain her neglected physical appearance and her mechanical responses to questions. But they are not enough to satisfy Maigret’s need to know WHY.

The story that he finally uncovers is one of young dreams that are unrealised. Disillusionment experienced at a young age developed into a belief that is no joy in life and no hope. It’s just something to be endured.

Reading this book I got the feeling that Maigret’s interest lies more in the psychology of human nature than it does in solving the crime. At one point in the novel he muses how he would have loved to become ‘a mender of destinies’ instead of a policeman, helping people who’d taken a wrong direction in life, back to where they should have been.

Yes he wants to find the culprit and quickly (if only to get the examining magistrate off his back). But the procedure of doing so arouses only a “technical curiosity” when what really matters to him is the human drama that is played out among the key figures.

Another aspect of this book that struck me forcibly. I knew from my experience with the audio versions, that Maigret likes a tipple or two, a glass at lunch or with his evening meal for example. Cafes and bars are where he does much of his thinking about his current case. But in Maigret And The Headless Corpse there’s a lot more than just the occasional glass.

The day the body is discovered for example, the Inspector has two glasses of white wine in the bistro before lunch, drinks with his lunch, then returns to the bistro for more white wine. On other days he takes an aperitif at a brasserie and a few glasses of calvados at the bistro. But this is nothing compared to his intake on the night a lawyer comes to the city with information about Madam Calas’s background.

Not surprisingly, the next day he doesn’t feel too good.

He couldn’t remember ever having such a bad headache on waking, which meant that he had drunk a lot. He had seldom come home drunk and what most annoyed him was that he hadn’t been aware of drinking, it had happened gradually one glass after another.

I suspect many of us have woken up wondering how we could have ended up like this!

Maigret And the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon

About the book: This is book number 47 in the series, published in French in 1955 and in English in 1968. My edition is a reprint from Penguin who began a reissue of the entire Maigret collection six years ago and published the final one in January 2020.

Black and white photo of Georges Simenon, author of the Inspector Maigret series
Georges Simenon

About the author: Georges Simenon was an extremely prolific author, with more than 200 novels, 150 novellas and several autobiographical works in his own name. He also wrote scores of pulp novels using a score of pseudonyms. The Maigret series remains his best known and most popular work.

The Inspector has proved a draw for television and film producers ever since the late 1950s. French Maigrets include Jean Gabin, who played him on the big screen in the late 1950s and early ’60s, Jean Richard (1967-1990) and Bruno Cremer (1991-2005).

British adaptations began in 1960 with Rupert Davies in the lead role for 51 episodes made for the BBC. In 1992 it was the turn of the independent television channels in the UK to air a 12 episode series starring Michael Gambon.

Most recently Rowan Atkinson took on the role in four feature-length dramas based on Simenon’s books. Atkinson who said he had been “a devourer of Maigret novels for years”, played the Inspector as a thoughtful man conscious of his own fragility. The performance was so constrained however it was nigh on impossible to feel any connection to the character. It was a long way from the Maigret I have in my imagination.

My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay: A Blistering Memoir

When the poet Lemn Sissay was 14 years old, he carved the initials NG into his hand. The letters represented what he believed to be his name: Norman Greenwood. Years later he discovered that was a lie and his real identity had been deliberately buried for most of his life.

An even more painful discovery followed. He’d always felt unwanted by his natural mother, given to understand by social workers and foster parents that she’d put him up for adoption. Only when he left the care system did the full extent of the deception come to light. Within his case files was a letter from his mother, written in 1968 when he was one year old, pleading for social workers to return her son.

Life Built From Lies

“They lied to me. Someone did love me. My mother”, Sissay writes in his deeply affecting memoir My Name Is Why.

The book recounts a 34-year campaign to retrieve his entire case file from Wigan council, the Yorkshire authority into whose care he was placed upon his birth in 1967. He was finally granted access to the file in 2015.

The documents revealed his true name, that his mother was Ethiopian and had put her son in the care of social workers when she was forced to return home to care for her dying father. But she had refused to sign any adoption papers.

In Sissay’s eyes, the care system completely failed him. It had stolen him, imprisoned him, placed him with inappropriate foster parents, moved him from one institution to another and spat him out at the end without family, name or history. It left him feeling unloved, lacking in self worth, and questioning whether he was to blame for everything that had gone wrong in his life.

Questions Of Care

His memoir is an attempt to answer how this could have happened. How a state could steal a child and keep it secret. But Lemn Sissay is also asking why. A significantly appropriate question because in Amharic, the language of his mother’s people, the surname Sissay means why.

My Name Is Why places Sissay’s recollections – in chronological order – of his experiences in the care system, alongside grainy extracts from social workers’ reports and letters. The juxtaposition reveals the gaps between the official interpretation of “Norman’s” behaviour and his own account, with inconsistencies repeatedly challenged and rebutted by Sissay.

Placed as a black child in a white, middle-class deeply religious family, Sissay was repeatedly told by his foster parents they were the only people willing to take in a “coloured” baby.

Tensions within the home were evident from a young age but became more prevalent as Sissay grew older, particularly after his foster parents had their own children. Sissay felt increasingly estranged from the family, accused of everything from stealing biscuits, to losing his temper and threatening to kill his brother. An accusation that Sissay rejects utterly.

Home was now hell. I couldn’t do anything right. The better I did, the worse I was treated. I was deceitful. I was tricking everyone into thinking I was a good kid. For the life of me I didn’t understand.

Life Without Love

When he reached the age of 12, his foster parents said they’d had enough. The boy would have to go. The day Sissay left for a children’s home he tried to hug his foster mum. But she and her husband were already disappearing inside the house.

It was the last time he saw or heard from them. No birthday cards. No Christmas presents. None of his clothes or books from his first home were ever sent to him. Sissay spent the next five years in a succession of homes, his mental health suffering under the weight of bullying, feelings of utter rejection and alienation because of his colour. The physical cruelty and strip searches experienced in his final institutional “home” caused Sissay nightmares until he reached his forties.

Every page of this book speaks of a social care system that was meant to help and support vulnerable children, proving singularly inadequate to the task. Though the official records do show a few sparks of sensitivity, particularly from his main social worker, they are few and far between. In the main what we find is his every stage in life recorded “click, clack, clack” in cold officialise.

“Staff meeting with appropriate social workers regarding control,” reads a typical report. Another reads:

The child has an extrovert personality and is attention-seeking. He is bright academically but unable to sustain long periods of concentration and is therefore disruptive in classroom situations.

No questions are ever posed in this report about why the child sought attention in school and was there any connection with the lack of attention he felt he received at home. School officials and social workers just view him as a problem child who has to be dealt with, rather than understood.

Blistering Indictment Of Care System

My Name Is Why is a blistering, unputdownable memoir that touches on the nature of social care, identity and family and how it feels to grow up believing no-one loves you. I was engrossed from the first page until the last, alternately feeling deeply sad and incredibly angry at the inhumane treatment of this child. The UK social care system does undertake some fantastic work, often in the most trying of circumstances, but when it gets it wrong – as it so evidently did in this case – the scars last a lifetime.

It’s astonishing to contemplate the extent of Sissay’s resilience, the strength that enabled him to come through this ordeal without irrevocable damage. No-one, least of all Sissay himself, could have imagined this troubled, disruptive child would become a renowned poet, a university chancellor and a Booker prize judge. But I couldn’t help reflect as I got to the end of the book about all the other youngsters subjected to the same institutional care system but who never made it.

My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay: EndNotes

About the book: My Name is Why was published by Canongate in 2019

About the author: Lemn Sissay released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21. Since the age of 24 he has been a full-time writer, performing internationally.

He became the official poet of the 2012 London Olympics, has been chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2015. He was awarded the 2019 PEN Pinter Prize, a prize awarded to writers who take an “unflinching, unswerving” view of the world.

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