The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead (Apollo 2016)

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When I heard that Apollo were launching a series of 8 novels under the banner of “the best books you’ve never read” I was most excited about this title.  A weighty tome from 1940 this was the fifth novel of an Australian born writer who used her upbringing placed into an American setting.  I was in the mood for a lengthy family “comic masterpiece” and was further enchanted by the lovely cover illustration, a detail from Norman Rockwell’s “Coming And Going”.  All this led me into thinking this could be the great under-rated American novel.

There is no doubt that it is impressively well written and carried out with great style- but did I enjoy it?  Not really.  The problem is with the main adult characters, the parents.  The titular “man who loved children” Sam Pollit is perhaps one of the most irritating fictional characters I’ve encountered.  He is the biggest child amongst his six offspring.  He torments, bullies and judges in what he considers his “good-natured way”.  He often talks in invented infantile language and has umpteen nicknames for his children.  He is full on from morning to night and the end result for me was neither funny nor endearing.  At one point he goes abroad on an expedition and I breathed a sigh of relief but that only brought wife Henny into sharper focus.  The two rarely speak other than to bicker, using the children against each other.  She is morose, melodramatic, threatens to hurt or kill her children at regular intervals, steals money off her thrifty  young son and is especially vile to her stepdaughter.  I think humour has changed significantly since 1940.

Stepdaughter Louie, the eldest, aged 11 at the start of the novel embodies many of the author’s experiences.  An unsurprisingly sullen child who is put on by everyone and teased and barracked by her parents she comes alive when she develops a crush on her schoolteacher, the only woman to show her any real kindness and it was moments like these which kept me reading.

If you are expecting (as I was) a nostalgic wallow in the lives of a cash-strapped family living near Washington this might not be for you and I think reading groups would find that many would give up because of Sam’s exhausting, continual banter and disturbing philosophies.  If you are looking for something dark and dysfunctional where the humour (still can’t see it myself) is decidedly black then you might join authors such as Jonathan Franzen who praise it highly and others who see comparisons to Mark Twain and Tolstoy, but because of the bitterness which runs throughout I remain unconvinced.

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The Man Who Loved Children was published by Apollo in 2016