The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

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The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The man who has it all walks out on his family - and keeps walking, mentally moving away from his old life the further he walks. An extraordinary look at mental illness and the effect it has on the family unit. Highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670917709

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Tim Farnsworth seemed to have it all. He loved his wife Jane and daughter Becka and his job as a partner in prestigious law firm was enjoyable, fulfilling and financially rewarding. The fly in the ointment was that sometimes he was overtaken by a compulsion to walk. The time of day, the weather or the occasion did not matter – when the compulsion came he had to walk until he was physically exhausted and fell asleep immediately after calling his wife to come and collect him. There seemed to be no medical explanation for what was happening – and Tim and Jane had tried every source they could find – but Tim was still reluctant to accept that this was a mental rather than a physical illness.

It had happened to Tim before, but he'd gradually come through it and along the way Jane had learned a few coping mechanisms. She'd also realised that there were things that didn't work. Handcuffing Tim might be a short term solution, but you can't keep a grown man physically restrained. Besides – she couldn't be with him twenty-four hours a day and particularly when he went to work. She'd come to dread that phone call which would inevitably begin with it's back – no need to ask what Tim meant - and knowing too that his compulsion would win through against anything.

A particularly mean aspect of mental illness is the way that sufferers stigmatise themselves. Tim would go to any lengths, tell any lies to try and prove that he was not suffering from a mental illness and to keep what was happening to him a secret. But the cruellest aspect is the effect on those around the sufferer: through no fault of their own they're put under intolerable stresses from an unpredictable, illogical illness and with no prospect of relief. Jane has her own demons to fight and Becka occasionally finds herself responsible for her father.

Ferris captures the hell of mental illness perfectly. It's not just the steady loosening of the grip of sanity, but the moments – months, years even – of respite when it seems that there might be hope, when life is happy and occasionally carefree. Tim's illness was never far away and was the perimeter limiting their lives and which placed him with the country's down-and-outs despite the fact that money was never a problem.

It's hauntingly sad and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny – occasionally on the same page – often because these are people in a situation not of their own making coping as best they can. They're characters you genuinely care about, not least because they care about each other. What Tim does, what Jane is driven to, does not seem irrational and you realise that there's a very fine dividing line between madness and sanity. Ferris can leave you wondering on which side of the line you stand.

The writing is sharp and elegant with not a word wasted but above all it's a story which pulls you in and will not let you go. I read it in two sittings over the course of twelve hours so desperate was I to know what happened to the family. It's a story that's timeless – anchored in no time and any time – and it will be read for many years to come. We weren't entirely convinced by Then We Came To The End – Ferris' first novel – but The Unnamed will surely establish him as one of the great American novelists.

I'd like to thank the publisher for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals to you then you might also enjoy Little Gods by Anna Richards.

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Buy The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris at


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