June 15, 2017


by Martine McDonagh
208 pages, Unbound

Review by Pat Black

Sonny’s 20, lives in Redondo Beach, and he’s just found out he’s a millionaire. It’s bildungsroman time!

Martine McDonagh’s third novel is a young-guy-on-a-journey story, but if you’ve stuck with her career so far – and we have – then you’ll know that it won’t be your typical voyage from youth into young manhood.

Narcissism For Beginners is the story of Sonny, a British/American teenager with a very odd personal history. He’s looked after in Southern California by Thomas, a man of mystery who has stepped into the role of guardian in place of the lad’s biological father, Guru Bim, a cult leader.

As Sonny reaches his 21st birthday, a Richie Rich scenario unfolds, and he discovers he has inherited a cash sum as long as a phone number (complete with international dialling code prefix).

Now at this point, most of us would smile wryly, maybe with a twitch in our eye, as we consider the ensuing carnage if we’d had an unspendable wodge of cash deposited in our bank accounts on the morning of our 21st birthday. I think I’d still have a pop at a lifelong sesh these days if fate was to bestow that kind of luck on me, with thanks and best wishes from Euromillions, and I am getting seriously auld.

But Sonny’s different. He’s already gotten those urges out of his system, not to mention a fair bit of meth - thanks in no small part to Narcotics Anonymous, as well as the guidance of Thomas, who seems to have followed a path of mellowship and sobriety in concurrence with his young charge.

Sonny is… we are almost astonished to learn… quite a conscientious and sensitive kid.

Still got some lip on him, though. We wouldn’t quite take to him if he didn’t.

Sonny decides he wants to find out more about his father, the great Guru Bim, as well as the shadow-play figure of his mother, who he hasn’t seen since he was abducted from his home in Scotland when he was barely old enough for school.

He jets off from Redondo Beach to the UK, armed with a series of letters from Thomas, some pop culture references and that great big stack of money. Chief among his cleaner obsessions is Shaun Of The Dead – a movie which is proving to be, ironically, deathless in cultural terms (and also has a curiously large following across the Atlantic considering it is so virulently British). Sonny is undertaking a pilgrimage to check out Shaun Of The Dead’s locations – but really, he wants to find out the who, where, what and why of his life.

It doesn’t do to have too many blank pages in one’s own history book.

This is not an action and adventure novel. Nor will you find much in the way of sex and drugs, other than mentions of times past. This was an act of bravery in itself by McDonagh; it would have been easy to side-step questions of Sonny’s identity and provenance by simply layering on the sleaze, Skins-style. Our hero is mainly following up on an old address book, meeting people who were part of Bim’s cult in the early days, as well as people who were involved with his mysterious father before he became the guru. Sonny records the conversations he has with these people in some diverse British locations, including London, Devon and the west coast of Scotland.

Barring some wry observations about one crazy lady in particular who was part of Guru Bim’s “shaking” cult, Sonny is mostly content to let them speak. In between chapters, episodic letters from Thomas address this epistolary style more directly – but there is danger in these pages, even murder, as the secrets of the past are revealed. And there are some absolute jaw-droppers.

Narcissism For Beginners is a journey back in time, looking at the sometimes convoluted, sometimes downright insane paths our very existences have followed, many of them taken on our behalf before we were even a slight dreaming-dog tremor in our fathers’ legs. The book points out some uncomfortable truths: that sometimes our own flesh and blood are an embarrassment at best, downright evil at worst. That your favourite uncle might have committed terrible crimes. And that some people we only shared a living space with have bestowed kindness and grace upon us to rival the seraphs.

The ending completely wrong-footed me, and asks that difficult question: Who among our family, friends and acquaintances really matters? If you had only five phone calls left to make before your life ended, who would you ring?

The book left me wanting more. I wonder if Sonny’s journey will continue. Even if not, we can only marvel at his good fortune, and feel desperately sad for his past.

Read the author interview here.

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