‘Glasshopper’ by Isabel Ashdown

What happens in a family when one member of it is critically dysfunctional? That’s the question explored in Isabel Ashdown’s début novel.

Told in two alternating first person narratives, it is the story of  young teenager Jake, and his mother Mary.  Jake’s story is told over a few months in 1984 and 1985, while Mary’s covers her life from idealistic childhood and adolescence through to chaotic adulthood; only at the climax of the novel do the two narratives come together.

Jake’s story is one of getting his first paper round and Saturday job, of squabbling with his younger brother Andy, and of wondering what state he would find his mother in when he got home from school.  He is stoically accepting of her absences, when she is lying comatose upstairs in her bed, and he has to make toast for Andy and his tea.  He wonders where his older brother has gone, but not enough to stop him from moving into his bedroom.

Before the reader can write Mary off though,  we are given insight into her life; the first person vantage point allowing us to feel sympathy for her disappointed ambitions and her estrangement from her sister and parents.  She is not blind to the terrible effect her behaviour has on her children, but despite her wish to do better for them, in her black periods of depression and alcohol consumption, she cannot look after them.

While the novel is not one full of dramatic incident, the portrait of the family limping along towards crisis is carefully drawn in prose that sweeps the reader along with the details of real life that suggests all the conflicts both apparent and below the surface, and this, for me, was the impetus that kept me engaged in the story, wanting to see what would happen next.

Interestingly, the only character for whom I had no sympathy, and who did, in fact make me quite cross, was Jake’s father, who at the opening of the novel has moved out of the family home, and seems to spend most of his time at the local, the Royal Oak, a location which feature prominently in the narrative.  Although it is Mary who is rendered incapable by alcohol, Bill spends much of his time in the pub, failing to turn up when he has promised, and spending time with his equally useless mates there, instead of looking after his sons.  When Mary is incapable, instead of looking after Jake and Andy, Bill leaves them to their fate in the house effectively on their own.

My only minor quibble with the novel is its ending.  It’s tricky to comment without revealing too much, but the end departed, for me, from the solid reality and believable practicality of the rest of the novel, and I found myself checking to see if I hadn’t missed a page at the end.

But you should read it and make your own mind up.

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  1. holdincornfield

     /  September 1, 2012

    Sounds great!


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