Book review: No Book But The World

THE title comes from Rousseau’s edict on education, Let there be no book but the world. 

Book review: No Book But The World

Leah Hager Cohen

Clerkenwell Press, €11.20

That is also the view put forward by the father of the two main characters in this book, Ava and her brother Fred.

It has a particular relevance for Fred who is autistic and does not socialise well in mainstream schooling. So his parents take him out and let him live unfettered between home and the vast woods near their home.

The novel meditates in large part on this childhood experience. However, the story is framed around a much later event where Fred finds himself under investigation for a child murder.

Without being doctrinal the novel does tease out the human basis and the human implications for letting a boy who responds badly to strictures to run feral.

Leah Hager Cohen’s first set-piece scene is Ava’s adult trip to a kind of hick town where her brother is remanded in prison over the investigation of the death of the boy. The description of the drab, unwelcoming guesthouse is spot-on for its bleakness of mood which perfectly matches the feelings she has in going there in the first place.

The food is grey, the hostess is inconvenienced to have a guest and it does not bode well for the Fargo-style encounter she is about to have with the public defender assigned to her brother’s case.

At this point in the story we don’t know what Fred has done, if it is murder or if there might be a more benign explanation for what happened in the woods.

Hager Cohen’s bag is literary fiction rather than murder mystery so we get far more about the childhood of the brother and sister than we do about the story that is playing large on local television, where Fred’s mugshot is recycled in every news bulletin.

What is interesting about the family is that they are not the kind of dysfunctional bunch from central casting.

Of the two parents the shadow of the father falls farthest with his views on education and free-spiritedness.

His daughter Ava, bucks against him early by wanting to go to the regular school like the other children and quite reasonably puts the argument to him that he only wants them to think for themselves and be free so long as it accords with his strict sense of what freedom represents.

Insofar as the story relates to the death of a 12-year-old boy the atmosphere of the book is not menacing and we never get the impression that we are going to descend into some gross iniquity.

That is not to say the story is comfortable or reassuring as there is always that real concern that Ava has for her brother and the troubling feeling that we develop for him as he wanders adrift in the world.

While Hager Cohen does capture her characters well she doesn’t pin them like butterflies, she presents them in their fleshy awkwardness in her emotionally astute writing.

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