- 21 Apr 21
Apparently, the phrase "don't judge a book by its cover" stretches all the way back to George Eliot's The Mill On The Floss (1860), wherein a character utters the maxim in reference to Daniel Defoe's The Political History of the Devil, which sounds like more fun altogether - it was banned by the catholic church, always a good sign. I thought it sounded better when Bo Diddley was singing about it, but anyway. The reason I bring it up is because the jacket of Fíona Scarlett's debut novel is festooned with quotes that talk of how "beautiful" it is and how it "will break your heart in a a million different ways." The attached pages from the Press-Release-O-Matic tell me this was a "devastatingly honest story of two brothers growing up." Hold on. "Simply stunning." No, that didn't sound like my bag at all, but I gave it a go anyway, and I'm glad I did.
Joe is seventeen and a gifted artist, gifted enough to earn himself a spot at a posh school, far removed from "The Jax", the tower block which is really called Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa's surname) - although it certainly is a bit of a toilet if the stairs are anything to go by - where he lives with the Ma and Da and younger brother, twelve-year-old Finn. The Da is a bad egg, working for the local arsehole/gangster Dessie 'The Badger' Murphy, which is not exactly a nickname to strike terror into the heart, but he's a man best avoided nevertheless.
Joe loves his brother, and is anxious to show him a better path than the one his Da has chosen, pushing him around in a trolley out the back of the flats and taking him swimming in Dollymount and to the cinema. Sadly, right from the off, there is something amiss with Finn. Sign number one, as he puts it himself, was a nosebleed that wouldn't let up, then his aching bones are on fire. His teacher Mrs O'Sullivan notices bruises on his arms and suspects foul play. She goes to the flats and confronts the Ma, Annie, but she assures her, in no uncertain terms, that she'd let her husband kill her before she'd let him touch either of her boys. It turns out Finn has the same bruises on his legs too. The local doctor calls a specialist. The news is not good.
At the same time, Joe, like any seventeen year old should, is trying to protect the ones he cares about. Sabine's nan went to Murphy for a loan so her granddaughter could apply for a make-up course in town, which she didn't get anyway. Now Murphy wants Sabine to deal for him, and she's getting some unwanted attention from another local ne'er-do-well, Carthy (that errant 'h' is always a bad sign).
As Finn's condition worsens so does Joe's. He drifts closer and closer to his imprisoned father's world, a world he swore he wanted nothing to do with. Scarlett jumps from one brother to the other with great skill; you do feel an encroaching sadness for Finn - there are scenes with the parents in hospital that are near-perfect and will remind anyone who's ever lost anyone of that bottomless chasm of pain and sorrow - but you also feel it for Joe. He gets caught out doing something he doesn't want to do while trying to erase Sabine's debt, and the world starts to cave in on him.
It's not just the brothers either. Scarlett's quiet triumph is the characters of Annie and the Da, Frank. Annie loves her husband but knows he's no good. Frank, despite his mistakes, has to face - together with his wife - a parent's worse nightmare, but he has to do it from behind bars. The quotes were accurate, it will break your heart.
Speaking of which, let us look again at the dust jacket. "Totally absorbing." "Authentic." "Magnetic." It turns out that you can judge a book by its cover after all, because these statements are proven true. Here is a book that burrows deeper under the skin the further you get into it. Boys don’t cry? This one did.