After Phoenix by Martine McDonagh
I really enjoyed Martine McDonagh’s debut novel I Have Waited and You Have Come, which was a dystopian psychodrama, so I was very happy to read her second novel – but it couldn’t be more different to her first.
It’s Christmas, December 1973, and we meet the Jacobs family: lefty hippy parents JJ and Katherine, son Phoenix – just back from his first term at uni, and fifteen year old daughter Penny. Phoenix is overjoyed at having persuaded his parents to get him a motorbike for Christmas. Penny did well out of that too, getting the record player she was desperate for. Cut to New Year’s Eve – partytime at the Jacobs house. Phoenix has a fumble with Penny’s best friend Jackie – she’ll not let Penny know who she did it with.
Cut to the New Year – January 1974. Phoenix is dead – his too big helmet slipped, he lost control of his motorbike and hit a van.
Katherine and JJ are catapulted into freefall in their grief. Katherine blames JJ for persuading her to let him have the bike. She can no longer talk to him. JJ responds by giving her the space she appears to want – he retreats into his shed, his home office where he writes his newspaper columns, eventually moving in there completely.
Quick footsteps on the stairs. Not Penny’s. Now on the landing. A faint rap at the door, the wrong door, and a timid: ‘Katherine?’ She heard him open their bedroom door and go in. A few moments later he crossed the landing again and she heard him open and close the door to Phoenix’s room. He knocked at the bathroom door.
‘Go away. Leave me alone.’
‘I thought you might like a hot-water bottle. I’ve put it in the bed.’
‘Please leave me alone.’
‘Katherine, talk to me.’ He was loud-whispering.
‘No. I can’t talk to you any more. You killed my son.’
‘Katherine, please let me in. I don’t want Penny to hear this.’
‘She’s not stupid. You heard what she said as well as I did. She knows you killed him.’
‘Penny doesn’t know any such thing, and that wasn’t what she meant, you know that. Kathy, I can see how you’ve come to think the way you do, but you know it’s not true, I know you do. You’re grieving. We all are.’
‘Don’t tell me what I know. Go away. I want my son back.’ Katherine’s words wavered as they forced their way up through the constricted pipe of her throat.
After one last desperate, despondent ‘Kathy,’ JJ shuffled his feet and after a bit went downstairs.
It’s left to Penny to carry on as normal and look after things, as her parents’ relationship gets worse and worse. Then one day Katherine snaps. She realises she needs help and signs herself in to the local psychiatric hospital – it’s the beginning of the long road to recovery.
This book is raw. Between Katherine’s breakdown and JJ’s compassionate yet silent disbelief at what happened, this novel needs the life goes on attitude of teenager Penny to give some breathing space. That’s not to say that Penny doesn’t feel grieve for her stupid brother Phoenix too. Each of the Jacobs family members has to find a way to deal with it separately before they can begin to come together again. JJ the hermit, throws himself into his work; Katherine gradually restores her sanity; and Penny gets fed up with Jackie, and makes new friends.
On an aside, in the early 1980s and in my twenties, I had a motorbike for around five years, (right – a Honda CB250RS). I was proud of being a biker-chick, and I did spend out on good equipment – helmet, gloves, boots, and my beloved scarlet leather jacket, kit which would help to minimise injury – but I still had my fair share of hairy experiences.
I was lucky. I rode from Gt Yarmouth to Harlow, Essex (around 110 miles) every weekend to see the boyfriend – and back. I came off it on the A11 at Thetford; I skidded on a patch of oil, and was lucky to not get hit by a car, just dislocated my shoulder, but ended up in Bury St Edmunds A&E. I also got blown off by the shock-wave of a lorry going past on a windy day on the Acle straight between Norwich and Gt Yarmouth. Too scared to get back on that time, I pushed the bike the couple of miles into town.
I never told my parents about the bike until after I’d sold it. So, I can understand Phoenix’s desire for the bike. It was a cheap and affordable option for independent transport in those days. I can also understand Katherine’s reaction and grief. I’m very glad that my daughter will want to learn to drive a car.
With each chapter titled after a pop hit of the day, the period details in After Phoenix were spot on – I remember it well. The regime in the hospital too was horribly as expected, (in the Guides, we used to go up to our local psychiatric hospital to sing to the patients at Christmas).
Despite beginning with a tragedy, this book is never entirely without hope though and is a powerful portrait of grief and how time heals. Powerful stuff.
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After Phoenixby Martine McDonagh. Pub Jan 2013 by Ten to Ten Publishing, paperback 220 pages.