Book Reviews

You by Phil Whitaker — one parent’s plea for justice

You by Phil Whitaker is an emotionally charged exploration of the way children are used as psychological pawns in marriages that ends in acrimony and bitterness.

Whitaker’s tale of is of a father who has been cut out of his eldest daughter’s life because his ex-wife systematically manipulated his eldest daughter into believing her father was a tyrant and a bully who had made her mother’s life a misery for years. Made to believe that any time she spent with her father was a betrayal of her mother.

The result is that Stevie Buchanan, an art therapist in his fifties, has not seen his daughter for seven years. As the book opens he boards a train to Oxford hoping the girl, now a 21 year old medical student, will keep a rendezvous he’s proposed. As the journey progresses,

cruelis based on a theory called parental alienation. i’d never heard of this previously but apparently it describes the way one parent becomes estranged from their children as a result of emotional and psychological manipulation by their former partner.

Cover of You by Phil Whitaker, a novel about the effects of marital breakdowns on children

You by Phil Whitaker is an emotionally charged novel about the repercussions of marriages which collapse in acrimony and bitterness. 

Whitaker’s tale focuses on a father who has been estranged from his eldest daughter ever since he walked out the family. He’s a victim of “parental alienation”, a concept I’d never heard of but apparently describes a parent’s psychological manipulation of their child’s attitude to the other parent. 

Art therapist Stevie Buchanan was cut out of his eldest daughter’s life when his ex-wife exerted so much influence that the girl  believed her father was a tyrant and a bully. The girl came to feel that when she spent time with her father she was betraying her mother.

As the book opens Stevie is travelling to Oxford, hoping his daughter, now a 21 year old medical student, will keep the rendezvous he’s proposed. If she turns up, it will their first encounter in seven years. 

Part of the story of You is told in flashbacks that reveal why the marriage came to an end. They also show Stevie’s subsequent battles with a social care and legal system that give him little opportunity to counter his wife’s accusations. 

The rawness of his pain and anguish is evident but so too is his feeling of helplessness when confronted by social workers and police officers who turn up on his doorstep to investigate claims of domestic abuse and intimidation. 

Through a local support group he learns that his experience is shared by many other parents. They all try to find ways to cope, though for some it is impossible. 

Until you’ve been in it, seen so-called justice at first hand, you wouldn’t believe it possible. But we know differently, me and my clan. People think it’s all he-said-she-said. No one wants to believe there could be such aggressive all-out war. 

There’s an urgency and an intimacy to Phil Whitaker’s novel that makes it stand out from other tales of family breakdowns and embittered partners. Most of the narrative is in the form of a direct address from father to daughter, hence the “You” of the title. 

Stevie desperately wants his daughter to understand the past and how it has affected the present. In flights of imagination he takes her on visits to her grandparents and to days from her early childhood, a period when he and his wife were still in love.  They “fly” through time and space to a farmhouse in Yorkshire and to a Victorian family house in the suburbs before landing at the intended rendezvous point in Oxford.

By re-living these scenes he wants her to understand why that the origins of his marital problems lay long ago in the past.

This is very much Stevie’s interpretation of events since it’s only his account that we get to hear. But it’s still a persuasive one.  The book is essentially arguing that the present system in child custody and access cases is sick, unjust and unbalanced. That there is a need for agencies to adopt a more balanced response and not accept everything they’re told.

Make an allegation, no matter how transparently cooked-up or pathetic or bizarre, and everyone has to take it at face value. Everyone has to play the game. No-one wants to be found to have failed to take something seriously, if later it does turn out to have been the stuff that actually happened.

You is clearly an issue- based novel. There were a few times in the final chapters where I thought the theory of parental alienation was over-explained but fortunately it didn’t derail the novel. It’s still a powerful tale of damaged families and how some parents use their children as weapons against their former partners. Thought-provoking reading. 

You by Phil Whitaker: Footnotes

Phil Whitaker is an author and a practising doctor (which explains how he can write so authoritatively about parental alienation). He is a regular contributor to the New Statesman where he writes a fortnightly ‘Health Matters’ column. His first novel Eclipse of the Sun (1977) won the John Llewellyn Rhys and the Prize Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award.

You, his sixth novel. was published by Salt in 2018.

This is book number 3 in my #22in22 project to read more books from the hundreds that lie unread in my bookshelves.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

8 thoughts on “You by Phil Whitaker — one parent’s plea for justice

  • I try and avoid issue novels, but I have the feeling I’ve read this, or a similar one. Our family broke up when the kids were teens. The kids say it didn’t affect them, but you can see that it did. I’m pretty sure though we (parents) didn’t use them as pawns, though I can see that if I felt hard done by I’d want the kids to know.

    • The children are bound to be affected, it’s a big disruption in their lives. I’m sure you did everything possible to protect them though

  • I am always so grateful not to have experienced divorce…or it’s manipulations. There were other problems in my family, of course, but at least not this one. I am interested in how many books I’m coming across, in your post and in several of the International Booker Prize longlist, which have a parent/child theme. Surely it’s something we can all relate to, and hopefully without excess pain.

    • I count myself fortunate in that regard too. I suppose the parent child relationship is one that so many writers have experienced themselves so they feel they can write with some understanding

  • And sometimes if there are no children, they fight over the dog!

  • Oh, I recognised the name from my New Statesman but hadn’t realised he wrote novels – interesting!


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