Thursday, 19 June 2014

Blood Family, by Anne Fine

The book starts with the Police and Social Services breaking down the door and forcing entry into a dark, squalid flat. Seven year old Eddie has not been outside for years. He's shared a filthy blanket with the dog in the corner of the room, lived on cheap bread and cheese and is bruised and silent, shrinking into the wall in terror at every sound or sudden movement. His mother has been beaten into a state of vacant dependence by her abusive partner. She is frozen in armchair, keening and unable to move or speak.

To start with, Eddie seems like he has escaped his traumatic upbringing unscathed- as a seven year old he's bright, responsive and eager to please. He responds well to the care and attention of his foster family, then his adopted family. He seems remarkably normal, considering regular things like swimming or going to the supermarket are totally new experiences to him. The problems really start in his early teens when Eddie makes a horrible discovery about his biological father that sets him on a destructive path to drugs and alcoholism.

Blood Family is beautifully written, it's a tragic and thought provoking story about the struggles of living with the after effects of violence, emotional trauma and neglect. Eddie struggles through adolescence battling feelings of worthlessness and fear and slides into destructive, damaging behaviour, despite the efforts of everyone around him that cares for him. I think many readers will be able to relate to Eddie's self sabotaging behaviour, even if their personal circumstances are difficult. His struggle with self esteem and confidence, and his fear for his future feel universally understandable, as is his desire to escape.

I thought the structure of this book worked brilliantly. The various narrators from different agencies voice their experiences and opinions in a way that builds up a complete picture of the pitfalls and practices of the adoption system, the thoughts that haunt those from troubled backgrounds and the tireless efforts of individuals in the care system to patch up the damage they can manage with the children they care for. They're honest, conversational accounts from different perspectives and even the most fleeting accounts seem important, adding their voice to the choir. Each of the characters has their own flaws and issues, seem full and unique and each contributes to the story brilliantly. Many of the characters' recollections of Eddie were incredibly touching and written with an understandable mixture of anger and tenderness.

Blood Family raises questions about the bond of blood and its importance; is your future determined by your genes? Is a person doomed to follow the same path as those blood relatives that have gone before them? Is background important in the making of a person? The novel handles numerous complex and difficult subjects tactfully and with care- the nature of addiction, adoption, the aftermath of abuse. Eddie blames his mother for allowing Bryce to destroy her, for having no backbone and for retreating mentally, but the book does not blame her and neither do many of the novel's other narrators. It highlights the ways that domestic violence can be committed methodically, psychologically and consistently under the noses of family and friends and has the capacity to change the victim beyond recognition.

It can't be described as an enjoyable book, but it's brilliantly crafted, engaging and incredibly emotional. I can't even imagine what surviving neglect, violence and abuse must be like, and Eddie and his mother are both very inspirational characters just for managing to survive. It made me realise too that whilst the care and justice systems might not be perfect, there are so many good people within them that just want to help to rebuild people's lives. Fictional though their account might have been, it was quite humbling to know that people like the characters in this book exist in the real world, and horrific to realise that there are Eddies and Lucys out there too. A brave, inspirational book about living with impossible fear and excessive emotional damage.

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