C.'s Reviews > The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead
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's review
Jun 30, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: australian, family-drama, to-be-re-read, 2009, own-or-access
Recommended to C. by: Jessica Treat
Read in November, 2009

I have to admit that my reading of this book did not do it justice: I've been busy, and tired, and I took a big long break in the middle because I had to finish another book, and it's very long. But: it is so very excellent.

I read somewhere that books about families are often shoved into a little, neglected category of their own - usually called 'domestic fiction' or something similar. I wonder if I'm not guilty of this myself, with my 'family-drama' shelf. I meant it originally for books like On Beauty and A Spot of Bother, books which I didn't particularly like, and so which I felt justified in belittling slightly by giving a label that made them sound like the sort of soap-opera I thought they were. But then, I suppose, it turned into a shelf for books about families, which this one is.

At first, the Pollit family seems to be nothing particularly special - colourful, interesting, mildly dysfunctional, going through a rough patch perhaps - but the book continues and at some stage (you can't tell exactly where) the horror begins, and it intensifies as things go on and on, apparently with no end. I was inclined at the beginning not to take things seriously: it was a nice book about an interesting family, written by an underappreciated Australian Marxist woman who knew how to turn a damn fine phrase. Henny was just a frustrated housewife with an unfortunate melodramatic streak, Sam was just an overgrown child with an inflated ego, Louisa was just going through that 'awkward phase' that some girls go through. But the book progressed and they begin to rip each other apart, and it hurts, it really does. It's not a game any more, it's not family-drama, there is nothing soap-operatic about it, it is real and it is painful.

The characters are so wonderful - the father, Sam, Sam-the-bold, Poor Little Sam, The great I-am, who is so idealistic, so naive, so innocent, so laughable, and yet such a loathsome monster. When he pries into his children's lives, refuses to allow them any privacy or will of their own, whistles them up in the mornings, speaks to them (or to himself) in the horrid baby-talk language he's made up, tries to force feed them with food from his own mouth! Turns Evie into a harried housewife at seven years old, tries to bind Louie to his side for the rest of her life... you hate him, hate him, hate him.

"Sam asks for everything and with the same breath asks to be admired for never having asked for anything." - Randall Jarrell

I didn't much like Jarrell's introduction, but he got a few things right.

And then, poor Henny, the mother. At first she seems horrible - an old witch, one of the moneyed landowners thrust into the real world and not coping well with it, with her frayed hair and fainting fits and absurdly repetitive tantrums - but never, never, have I read anything - anything! that made me really feel like I understood what it was like to be a woman living in a world completely constructed by men. Like, I thought I understood what it was like - I thought I could imagine it, but I had no idea. What the craziness of war does to Yossarian in Catch-22, Sam does to Henny. His complete ignorance of everything that goes on in her life, of all the things she does to make the household run, that she has no money - no money to buy new clothes for the ridiculous number of children he insists on having, no money to buy food for them to eat. It drives her to distraction, to madness, and it's a credit to Stead that I could understand this so vividly. It's a picture of horror that I won't quickly forget.

The last main character is Louie, the eldest daughter, the one through whose eyes we see the world. There are many things about her that are frankly unconvincing, for example the whole section that described her going to school. Schools simply don't work like that! I felt like there was something going on there, like it was a huge metaphor, something about women, something about feminism, something about women being proud of who they were and revelling in it and congratulating each other for it and there was a whole lot of oestrogen flying around and it was kind of weird, to be honest. But there is so much grandeur in her view of life! Where you are fat and ugly, but it doesn't matter because you know that there is a whole other life inside you that you show to no one. "By my faith and hope I conjure thee, throw not away the hero in thy soul." To be young, to have a future that is so full of possibilities, where you can leave behind the trauma of your childhood and become whatever you want to.

"...she sometimes let them snuggle into the shawls, old gowns, dirty clothes ready for the wash, and blankets thrown over her great easy chair, hold their small parliament on the flowered green carpet, or look at all the things in her dressing table, and in what they called her treasure drawers... A child could question both father and mother and get answers: but Sam's answers were always to the point, full of facts; while the more one heard of Henny's answer, the more intriguing it was, the less was understood."

She knows how to capture a single thought to perfection in one beautifully-turned phrase, but then follows another such phrase, and another, and another, and the cumulative effect of 527 pages of densely-packed beautifully-turned phrases overwhelms you until you are there, surrounded by the insanity of Pollitry.

This isn't much of a review, but please, please read this book. I'm actually begging you. It's completely extraordinary. It deserves at least six stars but I was tired so I had to give it four.
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Reading Progress

09/17 page 66
12.52% "Wow. This is written by a master."
10/04 page 336
63.76% "!"
09/30 marked as: read
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Small Creek (new)

Small Creek good grief, imagine that :P

message 2: by Jessica (last edited Nov 01, 2009 05:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jessica looks like you liked it...I'm glad.
a sort of tour de force, no?

I read it twice (years apart), don't imagine that I'll be approaching it again anytime soon though.

message 3: by C. (new) - rated it 4 stars

C. It was so good I actually look forward to years passing so that I can read it again and appreciate it better.

Jessica terrific!
I look forward to your review.

message 5: by Ben (last edited Nov 03, 2009 01:44PM) (new)

Ben I hope this means you're back on GR, Choupette! Just have your damn boyfriend join -- spend time together on GR. Who needs "reality," anyway?

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