Review published on May 23, 2017.
Sonny Anderson Agelaste-Bim has got some big discoveries to make. On his twenty-first birthday, his guardian presents him with with three thousand dollars, a list of addresses in the UK, a set of cassettes recorded by Sonny’s dead father and, somehow least notably, a letter informing Sonny that he’s inherited a fortune. It’s clear from the outset that Sonny has had no ordinary upbringing, although “clear” is not the word you would use to describe the circumstances of his childhood, as he discovers during the course of Narcissism for Beginners.
Sonny’s narrative voice is the first thing that struck me in the novel; he’s an oddly detached, unemotional describer of events, even shocking and dramatic ones. I took me a while to warm to him, which is understandable when you consider that the novel loosely takes the form of a letter to his estranged mother, information about whom is the purpose of Sonny’s trip to England; it’s hardly surprising that the narrator takes a somewhat snarky tone, given the increasingly alarming events related by a series of people who once knew Sonny’s parents. I became fully submerged in the book once the revelations started coming; Sonny’s life seemed slightly unorthodox at the outset, with his admissions of prior drug addiction and the peculiar relationship he shares with Thomas, his guardian, but the story of his parents and his childhood is mind-boggling. McDonagh manages to introduce a series of increasingly odd revelations without challenging credulity, and I was fascinated by the tales of cults, communes and criminal activity that emerged.
Narcissism for Beginners is one of those books that leaves you hanging; coming in at just over 200 pages long, it gathers pace quickly and the scandal doesn’t let up until the very end. The variation in voices helps; each of Sonny’s UK hosts is allowed to speak at length, so, although it’s definitely Sonny’s story, his occasionally disaffected voice doesn’t dominate.
A note of warning – Sonny has a slightly inexplicable obsession with the comedy zombie film, Shaun of the Dead. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, some revision of the Simon Pegg classic will aid you immeasurably as you make your way through Narcissism for Beginners. You may also need Cornettos.
Katy Goodwin-Bates 3/4
Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh
Unbound 9781783523443 hbk Mar 2017
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