Monday, February 11, 2013

Far from the Tree: A Dozen Kinds of Love by Andrew Solomon – review

A study of how disability, crime or illness test the limits of parental love is powerfully moving

A child prodigy
Child prodigies are one stop on Solomon’s journey: ‘No parental strategy, beyond dogged patience and tremendous hope, proves more viable than any other.’ Photograph: Getty Images/Vetta

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story about Google in which I discovered in passing that the question "what is love?" was almost always among the top 10 queries, minute by minute, to the search engine. In future Google might do well to point the askers of this oldest question in the direction of Andrew Solomon's extraordinary book. In my experience of the past few days you don't so much read Far from the Tree as cohabit with it; its stories take up residence in your head and heart, messily unpack themselves and refuse to leave. Once there, as one, or a dozen, working answers to the most urgent of inquiries they prove hard to argue with.

The 976 pages began for Solomon 10 years ago as a kind of quest, and like all writer's quests it was, to start with, an effort on his part to understand himself as much as the world. The book seems a kind of affirmative sequel to the author's previous landmark volume, The Noonday Demon, published in 2001, which explored with poetic rigour the debilities of depression, in particular his own, into which he had fallen following the death of his mother, an act of planned suicide following a terminal cancer diagnosis.

Solomon, a magazine journalist based in New York, begins again inside his own head, with the impulses that made him become a writer – the sense of difference and dislocation wrought by severe dyslexia as a child, and by the understanding that he was gay in his teens; alienations that were mitigated by the indefatigable efforts of his parents to have him live comfortably from infancy in a world of words, and by his own troubled efforts to have his mother and father and others understand his sexuality. This imprisoning solipsism is quickly willed into something entirely different, however, when Solomon sets out on his search for those who make his own psychological anxieties and challenges, his difficulties of acceptance and filial frustration, seem something not only manageable but trivial.

This journey takes him to what he begins by imagining might be the outer edges of parental attachment. "The children I describe have conditions that are alien to their parents," he says of this stubborn and compendious inquiry, "they are deaf or dwarfs; they have Down's syndrome, autism, schizophrenia or multiple severe disabilities; they are prodigies; they are people who are conceived in rape or commit crimes; they are transgender."

Each of these groups is given a chapter to itself. And each chapter – like a series of discrete books – involves up to a dozen tales of how particular children have challenged their parents and the author with what they know of life and love. If that makes the book sound mawkish or exploitative, or a misery memoir on a grand scale, it never feels at all like that. Solomon never tries to draw explicit lessons from the families he talks to, and in defiance of his surname he continually stops short of judgment. Instead he details the often painful, occasionally triumphant, sometimes unbearable, always deeply human narratives with care and empathy, and from time to time illuminates them with the urgent politics and telling historical contexts in which they exist. Solomon interviewed, compulsively, more than 300 families for the book, and ended up, he says, with 40,000 pages of notes. It is odd to read something of this length that feels like a distillation, a piece of concentrated intelligence, but that is, nonetheless, its effect.

Full review

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