Amity Gaige, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Schroder’ by Amity Gaige


Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 269 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Eric Schroder has told lies his entire life. And then, aged 40, they catch up with him in a spectacular way and he’s jailed for kidnapping his six-year-old daughter, Meadow. The book is written in the form of a letter to his estranged wife — an uptight but beautiful Catholic, if you believe his version of events — explaining how things turned out the way they did. It’s an exhilarating, adventure-filled account.

The strength of Amity Gaige’s Schroder lies in the voice. Eric is not a person we should like and yet it’s hard not to feel for him. He’s tender, emotional and full of love for his daughter, but he’s also a poor decision maker and slightly deluded. He can’t ever seem to see that his actions will have disastrous consequences for himself and others.

We learn pretty early on that Schroder has difficulties with the truth. Indeed, his whole life has been a lie. From a young age he reinvented himself as an all-American boy, even though he was an immigrant who fled East Germany with his father under mysterious circumstances (we never truly find out what happened to his mother, for instance). He gives himself a new surname — Kennedy — and tells everyone he grew up in affluent Cape Cod. Many assume he is related to JFK, and he never disabuses them of the notion.

“I have told stories, in fact, that were elaborate — you could say — fictions, and although these fictions were not meant to defraud or injure, I always knew — I knew in fact — that they would. Which is an admission that I — even now — can’t put straight to you, because I think it might be possible — it’s possible that if I made it explicit, if I took the blame, I would be singled out, struck down, and die.”

Not even his wife — the woman of his dreams — ever finds out the truth until he spills the beans in this grand narrative that spans his American childhood (in a seedy suburb of Boston), his marriage, his success as a realtor (prior to the global financial crisis of 2008), the birth of his only child, his separation and then the “accidental” kidnap.

Much of the book focuses on the kidnap (which he describes as nothing more than “over staying my access visit”). This involves a rather exciting road trip in a “borrowed” Mini Cooper across three states in which the pair have a grand old time eating ice-cream, swimming and staying in “hidden” locations. And while it does, at times, seem reminiscent of Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb (in which a man kidnaps a young girl for nefarious purposes), the narrative never strays into creepy territory: Schroder’s intentions are well meaning, an act of desperation, if you will, to save a love that he feels is being threatened.

Amity Gaige’s Schroder is a bold, smart novel. Often exhilarating, it also has a quietly devastating effect on the reader. It’s a wonderful, if somewhat offbeat, exploration of father-daughter relationships, of our powerful need for acceptance and of the desperate acts we carry out when life has gone awry. But be warned: if you pick it up, make sure your schedule is clear, because it’s the kind of book that is rather difficult to put down once you start.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Setting

‘You’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir


Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 157 pages; 2010.

Nuala Ní Chonchúir‘s debut novel, You, is a lovely, heartfelt and completely engrossing story about a 10-year-old Irish girl grappling with issues out of her control: the loss of her best friend Gwen, who moves to Wales; the impending birth of a new half-sibling to her father’s second wife; and a new man in her mother’s life.

A Dublin childhood

You is set in Dublin in the 1980s and revolves around the unnamed girl, who is largely responsible for her two siblings — her younger brother Liam, and “the baby”, who is her half-brother — because her mother is partial to a drink. A couple of neighbours also help out.

Every so often the girl and Liam go to stay with their dad, who lives on the other side of town. He has remarried and there’s another baby on the way.  Eventually, they stay with him on an extended basis when their mother goes to hospital for “a little rest” but all the time the girl longs to return home, to her damp, crumbling house by the river Liffey, because she’s convinced that her step-mother has it in for her.

Indeed, the girl is never quite sure where her loyalties lie — she loves her mother but hates her new boyfriend; and she loves her father but doesn’t like his new wife. The one constant in her life, however, is  her best friend Gwen, who causes another spoke to fall off the wheel, as it were, when she announces that she’s moving across the Irish Sea to live in Wales. It’s almost too much for the girl to bear…

A funny, feisty narrator

You is told in the present tense and in the second person from the viewpoint of the girl, who is feisty and funny and opinionated and cheeky — and fiercely independent.

I’m not normally a fan of second-person narrators, but it’s testament to Ní Chonchúir’s skills as a writer that the story clips along at a steady pace and never feels laboured. You get pulled into the story because of the girl’s voice and get to experience everything she experiences, which makes her tale feel more immediate and real. Here’s an example:

Sometimes you wish that your ma was dead and that you, Liam and the baby lived in an orphanage. The people in the orphanage would feel really sorry for you and they would sing songs to you and let you sit on their lap. They’d bring you on picnics in meadows and they’d have a big basket, a checkered blanket and a flask and stuff. Then one day a rich couple would come and adopt the three of you and you would all live happily ever after in a big old house with ponies to ride on. The adoption ma would be movie-style pretty and the adoption da would be tall and handsome and he’d wear a suit and tie. Your da never wears a suit because he’s an electrician and he wears jeans or cords and jumpers. You like to think about all that sometimes, but the good feeling of it doesn’t last because the guilt starts creeping up your body and into your mind. It’s not right to wish that people are dead, especially not a close relative, even if they are narky all the time and make your life a living hell. Your ma has her good points; she just doesn’t like to show them very often.

I often laughed out loud at some of the girl’s observations and at other times I wanted to cry. Much of what she thinks and feels provides great insight, not only into her own small world, which is fragmenting at the seams, but at the ways in which her mother is struggling to cope with single parenthood, depression and the fact her ex-husband has moved on and she has not. For that reason, this is a very warm and human book.

Admittedly, I wondered where the narrative was going to take me, but then something quite dramatic and shocking happens mid-way through and suddenly what had been an eloquent character study is transformed into a brilliant family drama tinged by tragedy and heartbreak.

You might be a short and simple story, but it’s evocative — of time, of place, of childhood — and incredibly poignant. I loved every word.