Review Blog

Aug 26 2020

When I was Ten by Fiona Cummins

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Pan Macmillan, 2020. ISBN: 9781509876945.
(Age: Adult - late adolescent) Stunning in its impact, this is one of the most disturbing books that I have read. It takes us into a world of familial abuse that is shattering for the family members and devastating in terms of their capacity to face life. Attempting to live 'normal' lives, when a young person has experienced daily bullying, beating, punishment and violence, mostly by the father, is a tremendously difficult task. Even more difficult is to experience such a life when the abuser and bully is a parent. We are positioned to grasp the horror for the children as their father's actions and words cut like a knife, crumbling any sense of loving family that they may have managed to hold on to. The creation of a hell-on-earth for children cannot possibly enable them to mature normally, nor does it allow them to be 'normal' adults, and this is indeed the scenario for a particular family in this novel.
When the father goes too far in his criticism, supported by the mother, in a particularly dreadful episode of his violence, the daughters are banished to the cold, dark shed for the night. Along with his disgusting and shocking accusations, one sister finds that she can no longer bear any more of his violence, and she kills both the mother and father, stabbing them with a pair of scissors. In a magnificent gesture that will haunt her life, the other sister confesses to the murder and at that point the lives of both sisters collapse. Years later, a television producer seeks to revive this story and, having traced the sisters, the team move in on the story, compelling a reaction. When we read about what their father did and how the girls were treated, the only word for our response could be absolute horror.
Well-written and gripping, this story emotionally draws us in to the psyche of the sisters and the woman who befriends the innocent sister, in an interesting reflection of the anger and violence that is indeed part of the modern world, not only in the terrible actions of the father, but also in the notion of a 'story' that is discovered and used to make a 'winner' for the news media out of the dreadful experience of others. This novel is disturbing, as Fiona Cummins has constructed the narrative so that it reveals the reality that some people experience. It is a gripping tale, mixing the years across the connecting narratives, gradually including some of the more horrendous experiences and actions, threaded throughout the narrative. This brilliantly written novel would not be appropriate for a younger child or early adolescent; indeed, I would recommend it only for an adult or late adolescent reader.
Elizabeth Bondar

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