The Stewart family were happy once. Mum, dad, two sons and a daughter. Before depression robbed the eldest son Kit of all his joy, and eventually robbed the family of their eldest son. The effects of Kit's illness continue to ripple through this now fractured and brittle family. Second son Jamie left home on the day of Kit's funeral; he lives a completely separate life. Little sister Emma is struggling with two uncomfortable environments, with neither home nor school providing her with a refuge. Mum fusses, all false brightness, busy and useful. Dad hides in the shed, his quietness a disguise for barely repressed anger. They are each locked in their own grief, grimly getting on with life but without happiness, laughter or even understanding. But, despite all this anguish the book itself is a beautiful thing to read. The lack of sentimentality, the light humour, and the sense of hope all make The View on the Way Down a book I enjoyed reading, even when it was breaking my heart.
Let me say something about the humour, because some of the anecdotes had me reading them aloud to my partner. In particular, Jamie's experiences as a bookseller had me nodding in recognition and saying 'listen to this, this happened to me'. His interactions with customers are absolutely true, and happen in bookshops up and down the country everyday. There is also happiness in the stories from the boys' childhood, as they got into scrapes of their own making. The evident closeness of Kit and Jamie is bittersweet, as the memories are painful for Jamie and will continue to be so until he can make peace with what happened.
This is something the whole family has been unable to do; they cannot deal with their own sadness and so are also unable to help each other with the burden of grief. Of all of them my heart went out to Emma the most. She was too young to understand the situation at the time, and knows there are so many things unsaid about it but any attempt by her to ask questions is rebuffed. She suffers from the strained atmosphere at home and is bullied at school. The tragedy of the unintentional neglect of those left behind is something that touched me immensely. Who is looking after Emma?
The middle section of the book is composed of letters written by Jamie to his dad, trying to set out his feelings. These are intense and sad, but at the same time I felt there might be hope if he was reaching out like this. Someone has to be the one to make the first move to heal a relationship. But there is no easy path to things being alright in this book; another thing that makes it feel genuine. So too is the portrayal of Kit's depression seeming to strike from nowhere; a previously happy and outgoing person there is no obvious root cause.
I think The View on the Way Down is a very affecting novel, written in a straightforward, simple style that makes the emotional impact all the greater. It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It is stunning.
Picador were very kind in sending an advance copy of the book for review. The View on the Way Down is published in Hardback on 11 April 2013.