It’s a family affair in Carolyn Parkhurst novel Harmony

This new novel looks at a family where one of the children has a behavioural disorder and comes at a time when as many as 15 per cent of American children have been diagnosed with ADHD, says Liam Heylin.

PDD-NOS is one of the many acronyms cropping up in the medical records on 13-year-old Tilly at the centre of this most engaged and engaging of books. Her mother has wrestled with an alphabet soup of ADHD-type designations and the reference to her child being on the spectrum.

Looking for diagnosis, or at least identification, there is also a resistance to the reductive tendency of such lettering. 

And that is despite years of unfettered verbal outbursts and quirky behaviour from her daughter.

However, when the child’s latest phase entails licking every door she opens and licking walls and floors, there is no more skirting the issue.

That is the point where Alexandra accepts that daughter, Tilly, has PDD-NOS, pervasive development disorder, not otherwise specified.

The novel plays like the diary of a mother documenting the effectiveness of a new programme to deal with her daughter’s behaviour. 

The tone is easy and conversational when Tilly’s mother is narrating. 

The storytelling is shared, chapter for chapter, with Tilly’s younger sister Iris whose sense of her big sister growing up is the among the most moving stuff in the book.

Tilly is quite a piece of work. She is obsessed with monuments, the bigger the better, and her knowledge of them is encyclopaedic. 

It doesn’t dawn on her that everyone else might not share her interest. In her world view, there is no time when it might not be appropriate to talk about statues at a slightly higher volume than favoured by social conventions.

She also talks frankly about sexual stuff to the earth-melting embarrassment of her parents.

But let’s stick with the obsession with statues for a moment. 

In one of the most awkward incidents Tilly has what begins as a perfectly pleasant day out with her mother. 

There has been no flashpoint where her favourite sweater was in the wash or too much milk splashed on to her cereal and generally things were, relatively speaking, quite lovely that morning.

It’s a family affair in Carolyn Parkhurst novel Harmony

As mother takes the time of peacefulness to tend to something of interest to her, Tilly approaches a monument to photograph it. 

A bunch of kids hanging around nearby cannot just live and let live and feel they must comment on the weird behaviour of Tilly (Weird simply because her behaviour is not exactly what they are doing or not doing).

One genius among them decides that it would be hilarious to volley the word retard through a fake cough. This launches a chorus of similar insults from the others until Tilly is reduced to tears, runs away and falls. The fall is the only good thing that happens because it prevents her from running out on to a busy road.

It is at this point that Alexandra decides to let the self-styled behavioural therapist Scott Bean into Tilly’s life and the life of the family.

Scott’s big idea is Camp Harmony. A kind of commune where families relinquish modern life, surrendering their mobile phones and internet access to grow their own food and sustain each other by communal activity designed to curb the excesses of a child’s behaviour without smashing their individuality.

It could all be very flaky and new-agey. However for all the engagement there is always a critical distance and it is clear from the start that it is unlikely to work out. We don’t know how it will implode or if Tilly’s family will just pack up and go home but the omens are hovering from the start.

When Tilly’s mother and sister are not telling us how things progressed at Camp Harmony, we are getting some diary-type entries from Tilly’s later life.

Tilly imagines that her family is the subject of historians or anthropologists, meticulously curating the minutiae of their lives for future generations.

While this feels deliciously strange, she is probably doing no more than articulating the job of the novelist.

While Carolyn Parkhurst sets her novel very firmly in the domestic, she cuts loose in the wonderful detail with which she creates the character of the pervasively disordered kid.

In one of the future diaries of Tilly, she imagines a family’s photo albums, books and magazines — all registering the death of someone through the magical erasure of that person from the particular photographs.

So with the death of a grandmother, the grandad is now standing as a young man outside an old church with his arm around an empty space.

Even a Playboy magazine now shows only the sports car on which the late glamour model was once draped. Only words about what turned her on are now left to adorn the image of car.

Parkhurst creates a number of those boldly quirky scenes which enliven the book, making the ordinary strange.

The ending — without ruining it — is fine to a degree, and certainly qualifies as page-turning sensationalism.

The disappointment in narrative terms is that it is a little bit like a meteorite hitting this little family who we have come to know in great detail.

The pity is that the ending is not more intrinsic to the emotional journey that they have all taken in going to Camp Harmony.

As an antidote to the glib reductionism of a bunch of capital letters after a child’s name, it is a deeply humane book to be saluted.

While the mother is the main narrator, the sections handed to kid sister Iris give a wonderful girl’s eye view of this family.

Her anticipation of Tilly’s outbursts and meltdowns have the capacity to send the reader over the back of the couch for cover from the inevitable domestic storm that is to follow.

The dad is a somewhat marginal figure. His acquiescence in the partial outsourcing of his parenting to this Scott Bean guy and his ideas of harmony, is a little less persuasive. But given the history of literature, a man being a little less than a central and fully credible figure is a forgivable sin.

As well as celebrating the individuality in children and treating with compassion their vulnerability, Parkhurst also has an eye to the heroic lengths families go to, simply in order to be families. While the commune is a stretch, it does wrestle with the idea that we are living in ever smaller units of people and that if there is to be community in any meaningful sense in the future it is a configuration that is going to have to be re-imagined.

And it is all written by Parkhurst with the flair of a novelist and the keenness of a naturalist.


Carolyn Parkhurst

Sceptre, £18.99


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