Broken Biscuits by Liz Kettle

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Broken Biscuits by Liz Kettle

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: As we follow Jodie's struggle with her eating disorder and social phobias, we also learn about her mother's fascination with matches, and exactly what lies at the root of her grandmother's behaviour long before she lapsed into senility. The dark subject matter is lifted by a great deal of dark humour, which results in a strangely easy and uplifting read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2007
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-0141025827

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Jodie is not ill, just lonely.

She knows this because the doctors tell her so. Her social worker tries to encourage her to go out, meet people, make friends. But it's not easy when you're suffering from non-verbal leakage... especially the kind of non-verbal leakage that tells people to "Shut down, bail out, evacuate the building quick, it's a nutter".

Jodie does try. Really hard. But in watching her try, you can see how inept she is, how her years of withdrawal have completely obliterated whatever social skills there might once have been.

In watching her, you might also question your own reactions on those occasions when you have watched the real-life Jodies and, perhaps, misjudged.

Jodie is 40-ish, but to hear her speak - which we do, for her story is told directly in her own confessional diary-room delivery - she could be so much younger. She sounds like a teenager, certain of her views, but not necessarily totally clued up. She sounds angry, insistent, frightened, vulnerable. She is acknowledging of her condition and her failures... but there is an underlying determination to get through all of this, eventually, that makes you warm to her almost immediately.

Her ability to see her own absurdity is delightful... but at times also very touching, and again, thought-provoking in terms of our own reactions to the people we stumble across in the real world.

What we know of Jodie from her telling is the current story. She is overweight, alone, and more than a little unstable. And people aren't helping very much. She has been in and out of hospital. She has social workers and "the day centre" volunteers. She has her fears and her rituals for coping with them. She has food.

Then she takes a major decision... no matter how hard she finds it just getting out of the door and down to the day centre, she will find the courage to go all the way to London and visit her Nan. It is on this journey she meets Owen. A chance meeting that will change everything.

Jodie's Nan, is Agnes. Aged and senile and committed against her will to a nursing home, where she is left to moulder away slowly forgetting the pain and the causes. She has a history of disappointment, of violence, of anger. Where Jodie has food, Agnes has the scissors. Her story is interspersed with Jodie's.

As we follow Jodie's present struggle, we're led back into Agnes' past through vignettes in time 2001, 1986, 1985, 1976, 1968, 1949, 1938, 1934... key memories, each of which provokes and leads back to the moment, the years, before.

It could be argued that this device is becoming over-used at the moment, but for once, the author does at least hold the backwards-narrative together. Each memory that surfaces, leads logically to its predecessor. There is none of the disjointedness that you might find in, say, Sarah Waters (The Night Watch). The questions raised by each encounter are answered by its predecessor as though you'd actually asked them.

Slowly then, we learn the whole family history, through the grandmother, while the grand-daughter struggles to deal with the consequences of it... until their courses collide.

Broken Biscuits is one of those rare books that does exactly what it says on the cover. It is a dark comedy of madness and ill manners, of the dotty and the potty, and the lengths extraordinary people must go to to appear ordinary. Kettle's insight into the minds of two very damaged people - damaged in different ways, for different reasons - is both sharp and empathetic. The humour always emanates from the character herself, allowing us to laugh with, rather than at, but its darkness is sufficient to make us question whether it should be funny at all. That is not a criticism... it is one of the functions of humour to make us question social normality or current conformity... and Kettle gets the balance exactly right.

Almost as an aside, she takes us through 70-odd years of 'treatment' for the mentally ill, which left me thinking that whatever my misgivings about the current regime and some of the safety-nets I feel we have lost, we do need still to move forward and not back.

It is a light, easy read that covers some dark, disturbing territory, but ultimately leaves you believing in the strength of the human spirit.

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Magda said:

I would like to know what her 'condition' is, did you miss it out on purpose to avoid labelling prejudices?

Lesley replied:

In answer to the question, by 'condition' I meant all of the things I'd already described her as: "inept...certain of her views, but not necessarily totally clued up. She sounds angry, insistent, frightened, vulnerable" and the things that I subsequently describe her as. But in a sense, yes, I deliberately avoided putting a specific label on it, because part of the plot revolves around the unravelling of precisely who, what, "where" she is.