Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Orange Wednesday: The white family (Gee)
The title of this book is extremely clever; when I read it, I thought that it described a group of people based on their skin colour. In fact, "White" is their surname, but this misreading is I am sure intentional as the book centres around the themes of multiculturalism and racism.
Using a multi-voiced narrative which cleverly reveals the perspectives of different members of the family and builds up the story, The white family tells the story of an "ordinary British family". Dad, Alfred, is a park-keeper, who has been with his wife May for forty years. They have three children, Darren, a successful journalist based in the US, Shirley, a social worker, and Dirk who still lives at home, working in a nearby corner shop. Sounds fairly straightforward, but Alfred has managed to alienate the first two children - particularly Shirley, who upset him years ago by marrying a black man, and when being widowed, finding herself another black partner. And he doesn't understand his youngest son who has failed to make very much of himself and who has absorbed all of his father's worst beliefs to become extremely fascist.
This unsteady state of affairs comes to a head when Alfred suffers a stroke. This opens up a can of worms as many of the hurts of the past come to light at a time when the family should really be drawing together. We come to realise that Alfred was not a good head of the family but rather an abusive patriarch.
I thought this was a hugely good read, and was not surprised that it made the shortlist in 2002. The characters are realistic, and, although not always likeable, extremely believable - I think this was the result of incorporating different narrative voices.
I've read a number of Maggie Gee's books, most recently My driver and My cleaner, a wonderful pair of books. Another of her books, The flood, was longlisted for the Orange prize in 2004, which was the first year that I started reading books from the Orange list. I can't remember very much about it now, but I read on Amazon that it is a follow on from The white family, so I think it may be time for a re-read of this. Maggie Gee has also recently published a memoir, My animal life, which I am patiently waiting for at the library.