Wednesday's Child by Shane Dunphy

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Wednesday's Child by Shane Dunphy

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Category: Home and Family
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Emphatically not a misery memoir and free of prurient detail, this is a truthful account of families in crisis, the limitations of state agencies and the difficulties in achieving results. Perhaps not a pleasant read, but certainly an illuminating one.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-1844881413

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Connie's brother is a paranoid schizophrenic. Her father is virtually catatonic and her mother is an unstable and violent self-harmer. Her sister is a teen mother. Yet Connie is clean and well-turned out. She's getting As in every subject at school. She's polite and well-mannered. But her only friends are two girls with special needs and this is the clue that betrays the secrets the seemingly well-adjusted Connie is so carefully trying to hide.

Gillian is anorexic - probably because she is in thrall to an abusive, neglectful and manipulative mother who uses her daughter as a pawn in her various battles with the authorities. Food is the only aspect of Gillian's life over which she has any control. For her support workers, the task is Herculean. How do you prise a child away from a damaging dependence on a parent and simultaneously persuade her that her own control mechanisms are equally damaging, if not more so? From where will the degree of trust required be found?

Cordelia, Victor and Ibar have just lost their mother who died after an accidental overdose. Their father is finding his grief too much to bear and is slipping further and further into alcoholism. Connie, at only thirteen, is keeping the family together, but only just. Would it be better to split up this grieving family still further, or to leave vulnerable children in the care of a neglectful alcoholic?

These are the three stories in Shane Dunphy's Wednesday's Child, which became a surprise best-seller when it was first published in Ireland last year. There is a fourth story, too, which tells of the care agencies and their workers - the stress of the work and its toll upon the staff and also the factions and politics that sometimes make matters worse, not better. Despite the agonising subject matter, the book is an easy read. Dunphy has a practical and honest way about him that draws you in and you can see why he made a good care worker.

In the preface, Dunphy stresses that this book isn't written for entertainment and indeed, this isn't a poor me memoir or a true life investigative shocker at all. There aren't any prurient details, Dunphy doesn't use any tension-building literary techniques. There isn't the slightest whiff of tabloid-style expose. The three case studies in Wednesday's Child were originally intended for a doctoral thesis and when his supervisor remarked that he thought there would be interest in them, Dunphy found himself a publisher. I have a cousin who has worked with children at risk for more than twenty years, and much of this book echoes the kinds of stories she tells, judgements she makes and conclusions she comes to.

Ultimately, Wednesday's Child doesn't exactly make pleasant reading, but it is illuminating and escapes all the usual pornographic pitfalls of this kind book. We do need to understand the lonely battles fought by children in failing families on the periphery of our communities. And we do need to understand the realities involved in helping them. We also need to accept that not everyone can be saved, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still try. We also need to understand how impossible it is to quantify the successes and how easy it is to make headlines from the failures.

Wednesday's Child is a serious but accessible book, and it casts an illuminating light on the lives of people who are so often unacknowledged.

My thanks to the good people at Penguin for sending the book. Elizabeth Speller's The Sunlight on the Garden is a more personal account of the ways in which mental illness can affect families.

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