Sharing Stories – Magnificent Joe by James Wheatley – Guest Review!
Also – and rather unfairly to out contributor, I won´t have a chance to add her to our Guest Star Super Star page until I get back. I´d like to point out that this is no way makes her a less awesome Super Star Guest Star :p)
Jim’s life has hit rock bottom. Locked up as a teenager for throwing the wrong sort of punch – the sort that sees another boy dead – it was over before it had even begun. Dumped back among his childhood mates, plagued by anger and guilt, he finds himself struggling to salvage something worthwhile from the wreckage of his past. While stumbling through days of heavy drinking, mindnumbing labour, and casual violence, Jim befriends Joe – a fifty-year-old man with severe learning difficulties – and together this unlikely duo keep each other afloat. But when rumours of a crime get out of control, and community prejudices start to close in, Jim must move fast before he loses everything, all over again.
A while ago an old school friend of mine who now works as a publicist tweeted about looking for people to review advanced copies of a debut novel from a Yorkshire author. I snapped up the chance but then really struggled to write a review. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book, I actually got pretty caught up in it. It’s just that I couldn’t think how to express my thoughts on it in a way that doesn’t sound completely clichéd. After much procrastination on the point I have accepted that this book simply is quite clichéd. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good enjoyable read, or that it isn’t good at raising awareness of issues around learning disabilities, simply that it does what it says on the tin
Jim is the bright spark among his friends, set for a future of university and all the opportunities his own father never had. On the eve of his GCSE exams Jim convinces Joe, a family friend with severe learning disabilities, to buy beer and cigarettes which he takes to a small beck near his home in County Durham to drink with his friends Geoff, Barry and Mac. When Barry’s older brother and his friend turn up a fight starts. Jim throws a punch, the other boy ends up dead and Jim spends the next six years in prison.
With his mother dying of cancer and his father committing suicide whilst he was inside, Jim has no one else but his childhood friends to rely on upon his release. Whilst Barry and Geoff are working as skilled bricklayers and beginning families, Jim has no job prospects and has never been intimate with a woman, although Barry soon remedies this by taking Jim to a prostitute on the way home from the prison. Jim starts working with Geoff and Barry and quickly falls into a routine of work, heavy drinking, sleep, repeat. However, the return of Mac, who now runs his own successful building company, starts to expose the cracks in the relationships between the three friends. Tensions are brought to a head followings Mac’s death in an accident at the site they are working at. When Jim and Geoff make clear that they no longer want to work with Barry, Barry seeks to hit his former friends where they are the most vulnerable. For Geoff this is revealing the truth about his wife Laura, for Jim, Barry seeks to play on the community’s prejudices against Joe.
From the first couple pages of Magnificent Joe I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this book. I found the writing style immediately reminded me of books I read in English class at school set in the “industrial North” with language reflecting hardworking, beer drinking stereotypes. With a trio of main characters, Jim, Geoff and Barry, bricklayers by trade who frequent the pub more than their building sites and use words like “mebbes” it’s not hard to see where this first impression came from. I suppose that this is very much written in a style that I simply don’t connect with. However, as I read on I was surprised to find myself hooked into Jim’s story, wanting to find out more about his past and how his life ended up as it is.
The writing is very much to the point, you won’t find long expressive prose here. But this is very much reflective of the story and its characters. The narrative switches between Jim’s voice, covering the period of October/November 2004 and chapters dealing with the back story of the characters written in the third person. The switch is fairly seamless and it’s easy to settle into. Overall it flows well. The story is structured in three parts. When reading this late one night I thought I would stop reading at the end of Part 1, I ended up reading the first chapter of Part 2 though as a result of the cliffhanger and me not being able to put the book down.
Central to the story is the relationship between Jim and Joe. It would be so easy for this relationship to be a sugar coated story of redemption for Jim. For the most part it’s not. It seems that Jim’s relationship with Joe is built on a number of factors, particularly familiarity and a sense of duty. Joe lives with his elderly mother, referred to as “Mrs Joe” whose husband had worked with Jim’s father and taken him in upon finding he had no family of his own to go home to. Jim’s father helped Mrs Joe out with jobs around the house and Jim, feeling he let his father down and caused his suicide, feels obliged to carry on looking out for Joe and Mrs Joe.
Jim is compelling character to whom I empathised. Rather than go off to university and leave his childhood friends behind, by a sad twist of fate he ends up in prison. Upon release he has no option but to rely on those childhood friends, finding that they are now skilled within the building trade and beginning families whereas he is unskilled with a criminal record, unable to drive and has never been intimate with a woman. Unsurprisingly Jim at times is full of anger with the world and very much seems to have given up on any hopes of a better life. It’s these flaws in Jim and in other characters that make this story believable. In describing himself Jim is clear that he is a “skinhead” and a “thug” who is happy to beat people up to get what he wants. I did find the back story around Jim’s parents, particularly his father’s suicide a little melodramatic and a construct of the author to explain Jim’s connection to Joe which is unnecessary. Both parents’ deaths are another nail in the coffin of tragedy that is Jim’s life.
Although Jim clearly cares for Joe and there is both comedy and tenderness between them and the way Jim reacts to Joe is very real. The relationship makes Jim a much more rounded character. Jim is often intolerant of Joe, sometimes wishing he wasn’t around or describing how he wants to “kick him in the head” or similar when Joe is annoying him. Many of the times when he calms Joe and prevents him having a “spaz attack” it is simply to give himself an easy life. Joe, whether by chance or design, seems determined to get Jim re-engaged in the community, volunteering him to help build sets for the village pantomime.
I felt the relationship between Joe and his mother was incredibly well portrayed. Mrs Joe is a proud women and it is clear that she is fiercely protective of her son in a very much “us against the world” way. When she starts to falter we find Joe in a terrible situation, not wanting to betray his mother by asking for help yet clearly unable to cope. Like Jim we simply don’t know if when Joe says his mother is sleeping he just doesn’t understand how ill she is or whether he understands but knows she would never want outsiders to know. The moment when Jim realises that Joe has got food poisoning from attempting to cook for himself as his mother is clearly too ill to look after him is heartbreaking. It is every carer’s worst fear – how will they cope when you aren’t around anymore?
There is realism in the writing. However, I found this was quite bleak, focusing on deprivation and poverty, and played a little too heavily on stereotypes that neglect to show the whole picture. Perhaps this was down to resentment to the idea presented in this book that all the characters who wanted to make something more of themselves and raise above the poverty they were born into had their lives ruined in one way or another yet those who had no ambition were rewarded for their lack of effort.
However, the flaws in the characters aid this story in its depiction of learning disabilities and the way people with learning disabilities are treated. The suspicion and fear with which the community views Joe is, sadly, believable. As a reader you feel that the events of this book could happen, but that they shouldn’t. Although it would be easier as a reader to dismiss this book as fiction, it only takes a quick look at a news website to see that Joe’s fate is something that happens in communities throughout Britain on an all too regular basis. It’s an uncomfortable fact and Wheatley is successful in forcing his readers to recognise this.