Review: No Book But the World

Locating the function within dysfunction


By Leah Hager Cohen
Clerkenwell Press, £12.99

Leah Hager Cohen's last novel, The Grief of Others (2011) was a clear and moving account of the members of a dysfunctional family in suburban upstate New York trying to pull their lives together. The son, Paul, is an "overweight, acned, awkward" teenager, bullied and lonely at school. The daughter, Biscuit, is secretive and plays truant.

It received considerable acclaim and made the longlist for the 2012 Orange Prize. Its critics (including me) thought it too melodramatic and sentimental.

Her new novel, No Book But The World, bears an uncanny resemblance to The Grief of Others. It is also about a dysfunctional family in upstate New York. Again, the focus is on the children. The son, Fred, is large, not normal, unable to deal with school. The daughter, Ava, can't shake off the stranger aspects of her childhood.

Their parents both worked in progressive education but are now dead. The novel moves between the children's childhood and the present. Fred has now completely gone off the rails, has been living as a vagrant and is awaiting trial, suspected of abducting and murdering a young boy.

This is a darker, more disturbing book than The Grief of Others, partly because of the deeply mysterious Fred. No one seems to know exactly what is wrong with him. His parents wanted to avoid labelling him in medical and psychiatric terms. They never faced up to what would happen to Fred when they died. It is a haunting question.

Cohen could have turned this into a whodunnit: did Fred kill the boy, as all the evidence suggests? But she's a much better writer than this and has bigger fish to fry. First, what is the responsibility of Ava - of any sibling - towards her damaged brother? Is she her brother's keeper? Secondly, the book offers a passionate indictment of a certain kind of progressive education while asking how much structure and supervision do children need and when does it stifle their creativity?

But No Book But The World should-n't be dismissed as a worthy, didactic novel. It creates interesting characters, the plot draws you in and makes you think. Though it's sentimental in places, many readers will find it moving and compelling.

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