15 Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins
A more serious read:
Laurence’s mother is an alcoholic. Often it’s left to Laurence to look after and keep an eye on his deceptively angelic-looking 6 year old brother Jay, whilst his mum struggles to keep two jobs and avoid the gaze of the social services. Then one day Laurence’s mum doesn’t come home. He’s not too worried at first- she’s done this before, she usually comes home in time to go to work because she knows they all need that money to survive. Except this time her work uniform is still at home, and it soon becomes obvious that Laurence is going to have to keep his brother safe, fed and happy without any money and all alone. With his neighbour’s nosy beak poking into the boys’ home life and with nothing but dried out bread in the cockroach-infested flat, how will Laurence stop anyone noticing something is wrong and will it be enough to avoid any social workers who might try to split the brothers up again?
This one surprised me – I’m not usually a one for heavier subject matter, and I really wasn’t in the mood for it the day I picked this up from my towering To Read pile. But it was the next one there and I knew I would get annoyed with myself if I put it off, so I read it. I quickly got absorbed in Laurence’s furtive decisions and anxiety and I found myself thinking how I’d fare in Laurence’s position – would I spend my last fiver on a couple of cheap pizzas from the pound shop downstairs too, or would I use it to buy a massive bag of pasta and some gravy powder to stop my little brother throwing a tantrum at having more bread? Or would I compltely panic and just buy more bread because I could at least freeze it… the possibilities are endless and you find yourself turning the situation over in your head just as Laurence does.
Despite the heavy material though it’s a surprisingly light read. I didn’t feel weighed down by Laurence’s plight or his worry about his mum’s welfare and how long he’d have to maintain the charade that everything was just fine and I didn’t come out of the book feeling like I’d just gone through the wringer. The book has it’s light moments amongst the desperation, such as Laurence dressing as his mum to try to convince the bank to let him take out some savings from an account (complete with bath bomb boobs), but still, it surprised me how refreshingly light the book was considering it’s material. I think it’s because it’s written in the present tense that does it, it feel as if it’s all happening right now. Unlike other books I’ve read that tackle heavier subject matter such as alcoholism, the focus is on what to do next rather than how events have affected the character emotionally. Not that the issue of alcoholim is glossed over, quite the contrary – Laurence’s reaction to his mum’s wherabouts had me in tears at one point – but the book’s all about what Laurence is going to do next and how he’s going to convince Jay to go along with it, not about how much it hurts when Mum smacks Laurence after her ‘Happy Hour’ wears off, or how gutwrenching it is when you think you’ve lost your chance at a competition on the radio. You get that side of it (my God do you – I’ll never look at a savings account in the same way again) but above all it’s a story about moving onwards, getting on with things because that’s all Laurence can do. It’s a very fine balance of empathising with Laurence, but not so much that you almost can’t bear to continue reading.
I also really liked the character of Mina, a brass band player Laurence meets when he goes to the park with his mate and Jay. She’s quirky, she’s funny, she’s no-nonsense and she is Laurence’s Godsend and….. I didn’t hate her. She sounds perfect and yet she’s eminently likeable – perfection! I’d actually have liked to have seen a bit more of her and the quiet romance she starts out with Laurence, but in hindsight I think that could well have muddled the main focus of the story.
The one thing in this book I have a bit of a puzzle over is Laurence’s mum. I’ve seen reviews saying that they think the story is an unrealistic representation of alcoholism in families and perhaps they’re right. Perhaps this is linked in to the relative lightness of the story compared to some of the heavier reads out there, but I have to admit that when it came to Laurence’s mum I feel like despite being the subject of all this attention, I don’t really understand her. I don’t really know why she drank (it took some time for the reason for it to be divulged in the book and I’m still not sure I quite understand how she got from point A in life to point B) and I don’t fully understand why she leaves the two boys to their own devices since she does seem to care for them even when only half sober. I still have sympathy for her and I can see that she is a complicated character, but I don’t feel like she’s really opened up for the reader. Little scenes like Laurence remembering her favourite boots and how much she’d loved them and then finding a whiskey bottle in them were few and far between, so I knew she was an alcoholic but I don’t come out of the book really knowing anything more about her beyond what her favourite boots looked like.
Altogether, this might not be the best book to look at alcoholosim in depth, but it’s certainly an engaging story and a happy halfway point between a heavier subject matter and an airier read.