Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Men Cry Alone by Philip Paris

Review by Bill Kirton

There are books you enjoy but which then fade and there are books which stay with you. They may stay for reasons of style, subject matter or because they touched on a specific thread which was important to you. Whatever the reason, though, if a book does stay with you after you’ve finished it, the writer can congratulate him/herself on having succeeded, so congratulations to Philip Paris for achieving that sort of success with Men Cry Alone.

The theme of the novel – partnerships in which men are abused by women – suggests that, in this case, it’s the shock value of the content that makes its impact last. And it’s true that Paris’s careful, studied treatment of the theme, the thoroughness of his research and the sensitivity of his portrayal of the characters – ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – are all very impressive. However, the real power of the book lies in the subtlety of his analysis of the psychology behind the events and his insinuation that extreme violence can be a feature of the most ‘ordinary’ relationships.

The inverted commas I’ve put around ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ordinary’ are there to show that each of these terms needs to be questioned and, in this context, they don’t have the single moral value that’s normally ascribed to them.
The book opens with a gentle setting of context and an almost anecdotal approach to one of the main characters, all so skilfully managed that the shocking event towards which it’s moving is that much greater when it eventually does arrive. The reader doesn't know it's coming but then, neither did the character, and so Paris has made quite a strong point right at the outset. He’s set up a tension between the ordinariness of the everyday and the unthinkable possibility of extreme, unsuspected violence.

Three separate stories are told, each involving a couple in which the man is abused by the woman. Their respective situations and ages allow Paris to suggest the spectrum of such violence is broad: Alfred and Enid are in their 70s and have known and loved each other for 60 years; Tom and Gemma have a young daughter; and Gordon and Tania  are childless. Structurally, having three distinct narrative threads is a shrewd choice. In each, there are sequences which end with cliffhangers, whereupon the scene shifts to one of the other couples but rather than this frustrating readers by leaving them in suspense, they’re transported to a narrative point at which a previous cliffhanger is about to be resolved.

For all three couples, we’re given unadorned, ordinary settings peopled by characters  unremarkable save for the fact that they are abuser and abused. There are no stylistic flourishes, no fancy literary or linguistic tricks, just a stripped chronicle of their days together and the mixture of furies and quiet desperation that characterise their lives.

The book is about more than abuse. It's about love, relationships, life. The little things we do unconsciously every day which may seem trivial but which constitute our strength and which, if broken or distorted, replace our previously reliable reality with chaos and impotence. As you read and become involved with these characters, the ordinariness of their lives strikes you, starts making you ask yourself questions about morality, psychology, motives, relationships and how all these things depend on the maintenance of really simple habits and routines.

Two of the abusers are unpleasant characters, but they’re not monsters, and in each of the relationships, the word ‘love’ is still a powerful part of the equation which holds them together. This contributes to the bewilderment felt by both characters and reader.  All in all, what’s being recorded is a tragic but baffling phenomenon. We’re seeing people manipulate the little things of life to plot against one another, use a child or the threat of suicide to control a partner. The real shock is that such familiar, trivial things in the most ordinary of circumstances can develop into something truly sinister.



This is an intelligent, considered, sympathetic book which gives you three gripping stories and constantly provokes you to reflect on the mysterious bonds which hold (or are supposed to hold) people together.