House Mother Normal, by BS Johnson

Tells the story of a morning in an old peoples' home, from the perspective of eight of the patients and the house mother herself. Each of the nine chapters is exactly the same length, and each covers exactly the same period of time, to the extent that each line of each chapter is viewing a given event from a different perspective. The patients themselves have varying degrees of dementia, and so some of the accounts are barely comprehensible, with only occasional flashes of meaningful words and sentences.

I ordered this from the library after reading Johnson's biography and so I had a good idea of what to expect - in fact the biography had given away some of the detail which would otherwise have been a surprise, which spoilt it a little bit. I'd say though that the book was more impressive than enjoyable; I know that Johnson went to some lengths to plan out the book and arrange things but I'm not sure that all of the planning added to the aesthetic enjoyment of the book.

It was interesting to realise that as you read more of the chapters, you were able to work out more what was going on: in some cases the references to events were fairly elliptical, and it wasn't until you heard what other people said that you worked out what must be going on. But I think there was only one section which I enjoyed reading for the way in which it seemed real, and that was by a guy who was suffering from "inoperable rectal carcinoma", which he believed to be a bad case of piles. His story was punctuated by frequent "oooh"s and "aarggh"s to convey his discomfort, and that was painfully convincing.

What I did find poignant was that the book from the library was evidently a copy that had been published before Johnson's death, and so its sleevenotes (which I believe were written by Johnson himself) referred to him as a writer of great promise, etc.. The facts that (a) Johnson killed himself very shortly after this was written, and (b) most of his work is now out of print, give the book a bit of a sombre feel.

Worth reading, but I'm not sure I'd bother reading it again.

Completed : 10-Mar-2007

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