‘Martin John’ by Anakana Schofield

Martin-John

Fiction – paperback; Biblioasis; 322 pages; 2015.

If budding writers wanted to learn how to best use refrains in their work they should read Anakana Schofield’s Martin John, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Giller Prize.

This new novel, Schofield’s second, is dotted with refrains — “harm has been done”, “it is never defined”and  “rain will fall” are just a handful of examples — that form a kind of hypnotic litany that works a spell over the reader. It’s hard to pinpoint how the author has achieved this without detracting from the storyline, but somehow the refrains add to the musicality of the prose, which is stripped back and very simple, the kind of style that particularly appeals to me.

It’s no secret that dark subjects in fiction appeal to me, too, and Martin John is about as dark as they get.

A man with a problem

The story is about a man — the Martin John of the title — who is, to be perfectly frank, a pervert or sexual molester.  He likes women and girls. He specifically likes “flashing” his you-know-what at them. He also likes rubbing up against women, touching their feet and sometimes putting a hand on their leg, in order to get even closer to them. He does this in public, usually in parks, alley ways or on public transport. He once did it in a dentist’s waiting room — to a 12-year-old girl.

He’s been caught, of course, and spent time behind bars. He’s been in a mental facility at a hospital on more than one occasion. He’s also received many, many warnings from police. But this has never deterred him from what he likes to do. It’s almost as if he can’t stop himself:

Because she was a woman in that room there’s bound to be a problem. Whenever he is alone in a room with a woman a problem follows. He waits for the problem to come and follow him. He waits for the knock.

Whose perspective?

The narrative is told in the third person, but it’s done so cleverly, you’re not quite sure if it’s been told from the perspective of Martin John himself or his hapless Irish mother, who hasn’t so much as disowned him but given up trying to help him. Although she’s always on the end of the telephone and will happily give him advice, she did make him leave Ireland for London, presumably to start afresh in a city where no one knew of his wicked ways — or maybe it was simply to rescue her own reputation? No one wants to be the mother of a sexual pervert, after all.

Occasionally, the narrative even appears to be told from the perspective of the victim. This quote from a 32-year-old mother of two children shows how she’s still grappling with the impact of the crime committed against her 20 years after the fact:

She never lets her children sleep the night at any house, apartment, bunk bed but hers. This is how she remembers. It is within those decisions she remembers. Every person she comes into contact with she must assess for danger. This is how she remembers it. Within the cracks of possibility she remembers.

If I’m making the book sound a bit oppressive, I don’t mean to. The serious nature of the crimes committed here (none of which, by the way, are ever trivialised) are lightened by humour. The prose is ripe with witty remarks and ridiculously funny, if absurd, situations, so much so that you can’t help but feel a little empathy for Martin John. Yes, he’s manipulative, yes, he’s a liar, yes, he harms others, but somewhere along the line you realise it could all be stopped if he received the right treatment, for Martin John is not normal.

At the risk of diagnosing a fictional character, I’d say he’s got some learning difficulties and is perhaps sociopathic. He doesn’t appear to learn from any bad situations he’s in — and while he can hold down a job (as a security guard) and look after himself, he doesn’t appear to be able to make friends or get along with others. He’s the perfect example of a social misfit.

He also has paranoid tendencies, which worsen as the story develops, and he firmly believes that his flatmate, whom he dubs “Baldy Conscience” is out to get him. Martin John’s solution to this “problem” is to try to oust his flatmate in a series of ludicrous of ways, none of which have a remote chance of success. (At times I was reminded of Matt, the completely delusional character in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here, who justifies all manner of crimes, including murder, and of the nasty unnamed narrator in Michael Dibden’s Dirty Trickswho carries out an affair right under his wife’s nose. Both books, I must point out, are black comedies.)

Perhaps the weakest point in the novel is the ending, but on the whole Martin John is a darkly comic story about a deeply troubled man, and Schofield’s dissection of his motivations and preoccupations helps to show us that we can’t fix things by simply labelling such characters as “monsters” and then forgetting about them. In posing the question, is it the mother’s job to stop such perverted behaviour, she also gets us to think about who should take responsibility for those people who can’t (or won’t) take responsibility for themselves.

This is an intelligent, deeply thought-provoking — and brave — novel. For what it’s worth, I think it would be a worthy winner of the Giller Prize, which will be announced next week (10 November).
UPDATE Sunday 8 November: The Shadow Giller Jury has named “Martin John” as our winner for 2015. You can read more about our decision on KevinfromCanada’s blog. The real Giller Prize winner will be named on Tuesday. 

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14 thoughts on “‘Martin John’ by Anakana Schofield

  1. Great review, Kim. With the proviso that I still have ‘Fifteen Dogs’ to read, this would so far be my pick for the Giller (though I’d still have preferred to see Marina Endicott or Alix Hawley win). But I thought ‘Martin John’ was very good indeed, another ambitious book that, unlike ‘Outline’ or ‘Arvida’ in large part succeeds in fulfilling its ambitions. If I had one criticism it would be that the novel runs out of steam a little towards the end: maybe it is simply that I became used to the style and was no longer so disoriented by it, but it was a bit like watching a magician performing the same tricks again and again long after you’d worked out how they were done – as a result scenes like the one with Martin John and Mary at Euston seemed almost conventional in the way they were told. I like the book best when I didn’t know quite what was going on or who was speaking as that seemed to be a perfect expression of Martin John’s mind. But it’s certainly a book that leaves you with things to think about.

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    • Totally agree with you re: once you figured out what was going on with Martin John it ran out of a little steam. I loved that disorienting feeling at the beginning and trying to work out exactly what it is that Martin John had done to be banished by his mother. It’s never really explicitly revealed and perhaps I should have put that in my review: the book works on the basis that the reader has to fill in most of the gaps.

      I’ve read all the shortlisted novels now… Won’t reveal my favourite yet… but I’m pretty sure I know which one I’d really like to see win.

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  2. Yes! I’m so glad you liked this one. Having read 2 and 1/2 of the shortlisted books, I think this is the one I’d like to see win. Especially since Fifteen Dogs just won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Before that, I couldn’t decide between the two.
    I loved her first book, Malarky, even more, so all the more reason for her to win this time.

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    • Oh, thanks for telling me about Fifteen Dogs — I hadn’t realised it had won that prize. I really don’t understand the fuss about that novel, but hey, each to their opinion 😉

      I’m still trying to figure out which book is my favourite on the Giller shortlist — it’s a toss up between two, and this one is one of those in contention. I, too, loved Malarky — I read it when it first came out but never quite got around to reviewing it. In fact, I’m not even sure I put it on my reading log, which I must rectify pronto. I remember the black comedy of that story and the wonderful use of Irish vernacular throughout.

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  3. I’m intrigued by this one Kim… how the author makes such a discomfiting premise into a possible winner. It could go horribly wrong but sounds like she’s done a great job.

    ‘the book works on the basis that the reader has to fill in most of the gaps’ sounds right up my street although in this case I’m hoping my natural censor kicks in!

    Have heard a few good comments regarding Malarkey – will look that one up too.

    Great review, thanks.

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  4. I am curious about this book. Anakana was reading from it tonight on the radio. I have held off buying it because And Other Stories is due to release it in the new year and as a subscriber I should be getting that edition shortly. Kind of odd when it has been out here for months. The only Giller nominee I have read is Arvida which I liked very much. Not only am I in a short story mood, but he caught the Canada of my youth (his father’s) so very accurately. And I would love to see a translated title take the prize (only three have ever been nominated – none have won). Quebecois literature interests me more than most English Can lit it seems.

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    • I so agree with your thoughts on Arvida: I’ve read the entire shortlist now and it’s my favourite (closely followed by Martin John). I don’t call myself a short story fan but I loved this collection.

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  5. I must admit, I am not excited about the shortlist this year. This novel is the only one that appeals to me. I loved a couple books from the longlist –All True Not a Lie in It and Undermajordomo Minor. I am disappoted they did not made the shortlist.

    I am glad I read your review. Winner or not, Ièll be reading this one for sure.

    Thanks for sharing.

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    • I’m with you: re the quality of the shortlist. I found it rather disappointing. But this one (and Arvida) were the standouts for me. Interesting to hear you liked some of the longlisted titles better.

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      • I wouldn’t say better… I have not read any of the shortlisted novels. Martin John and Outline are the only ones that appeals to me.

        I’ve read both O’Neill novels, but I’ve sworn her off. Her style drives me nuts (soooooooo many similes. In every paragraph of every page. Too. Much.) So, I am not attacking her short story collection, even if she wins.

        I don’t know. Just not excited about the shortlist this year. I really wanted Alix Hawley to win. Guess that’s why.

        As a rule, the winner is usually not my fave. I discovered so many amazing books from the Giller longlists and shortlists.

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  6. Pingback: The 2015 Shadow Giller winner is… | KevinfromCanada

  7. Pingback: ‘Arvida’ by Samuel Archibald | Reading Matters

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