Brother, who art thou?: “Lullaby” by Bernard Beckett

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Lullaby is a finalist for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adult Fiction. And it’s easy to see why. It opens with Theo, sitting in a hospital room with a therapist. His twin brother, Rene, has just been involved in an accident that has left him on the brink of death, with his brain severely damaged. Theo has been proposed with the choice of saving his brother. All he needs to do, in order to ensure that his brother will have a functioning brain, is allow the doctors to transfer a copy of his memories into that of his brother’s.

Without delving too deeply into the scientific realism of this premise (I am no neurologist), this book centers around questions of memory as individual identity, as well as memory as a collective constructed reality. These are intriguing questions and kept me hooked for the duration of the book. Memory is a fascinating, and frequently unreliable, thing. We rely on it so absolutely for our daily lives, and yet there are so many ways in which it fails us – sometimes even without our being aware of it. How many times, for example, have you revisited an event in the past only to find that you remember things differently to how your friends or family remember it? And how much value does our memory of a person’s behavior or personality influence our perception of them? And what happens when that memory s flawed?

As a young girl, one of the lobby security guards in the apartment building we lived in used to scare me. I don’t know what it was, but there was something about him that intimidated me. He picked up on this, and for his own amusement, used to try and scare me every time I had to pass him. I remember how he would laugh gleefully whenever I jumped or startled. I would dread having to come across him. In fact, I despised him so much I used to fantasize about him getting into all sort of mishaps. One that stands out the most is thinking, with relish, how he might have to fix a drain pipe, and imagining its contents raining down on him in a filthy deluge. It was immensely satisfying to the younger me. I remember mentioning this to my brother years later, only to have my brother remark that he had a similar “fantasy” as well. It struck me, then, how much our joint hatred of this man had culminated, from different processes, into a shared thought.It also strikes me that it could easily be the other way around – that my brother and I had discussed the best (worst) possible revenge to take the guard, and over time convinced ourselves that we’d thought of it on our own.

We believe our memories are our own, and our perceptions of the self is built on them. What happens then when those memories are inaccurate? And what happens when memories overlap, in all their inaccuracy? These are the questions Theo is forced to ask himself as he tries to decide on his brother’s fate. As Theo sits in a hospital room with a psychiatrist, talking of his past, we get to see how he and his twin brother played the usual twin pranks, spending entire days switching identities, convincing everyone else, and at times, even convincing themselves.

The frustrating thing, perhaps, about this book is that, while it asks a lot of questions, it doesn’t really answer many of them. Bernard Beckett is apparently known for his open-ended narratives. It’s not something that detracts from the whole but, personally, I would’ve liked a few answers sprinkled in there. Having said that, however, I will say this is an excellent and thought-provoking read, and I’d recommend it to everyone and their dog.

“Sometimes I felt crazy too.”

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Sylvie feels invisible. Her sister, “Calamity” Cate, is suffering from mental illness. It’s wreaking havoc on the family.Cate is lost in her nightmarish world, and her parents are both drained by this situation. Sylvie’s swept up into the eye of the storm, feeling far too much like a negligible speck. School isn’t much better, either, where she feels out of place and visible for all the wrong reasons. So, Sylvie decides to undergo a makeover. The new Sylvie will be bold and throw caution to the wind. More importantly, she’ll be noticeable. This, of course, doesn’t come without its own set of consequences.

I love how Kaeli Baker has created a flawed, but endearing character in Sylvie. She is absolutely in a difficult position; she is going through things that no one at her age should be going through alone. At the same time, she reacts in quite selfish ways, and is often oblivious to the goings-on around her. Her decisions are impulsive and misguided. There were times when I just wanted to reach in, grab her face, and command her to take care of herself. It’s heartbreaking to think about how many youngsters are out there, isolated in their experiences, and unable to vocalize their pain, or trying to externalize it in ineffective ways.

Living with mental illness is difficult, but this novel shows that this can also be true for those living with someone suffering from a mental illness. Cate’s mental illness is not at the center of the novel; it’s the effects of it that Baker focuses on, and it’s a good exploration. Watching Sylvie’s family struggle to keep it together is hard, but from the outsider perspective I had as a reader, at times it seemed almost inevitable. Their suppressed emotions break out in loud and explosive actions, or in quiet, insidious ways that eat away at each of them. It’s an honest exploration, and Baker does not try to cover anything up in pretty paper.

The interactions between the younger characters were a little less real for me, however. There were times when the dialogue felt a little unnatural and jilted. Some of the development also feels slightly rushed. I can appreciate that this is a shorter novel, however, and as such there’s only so much space to work with.

I think a lot of young readers will benefit from reading this. Not only does it highlight the importance of reaching out for help, it also encourages reaching out to help others. There isn’t much discussion about mental illness and adolescents, especially in the New Zealand school setting. This book takes step to change that.