I didn’t expect to like this 1970 Booker Prize winner. The early winners often don’t age well. And the cover art is, well, goofy and amateurish. And given the novel was published on the heels of the tumultuous 1960s, I expected drug addiction — one of the novel’s main themes — to be glorified and celebrated.
I was wrong on all counts. Well, not about the cover art, because there’s no arguing with that one. But the goofy artwork belied an intense novel with surprising emotional depth. Norman Zweck is a 41-year-old London barrister, struck down in his prime because of his addiction. His father, a Rabbi, makes the difficult decision to have Norman committed for treatment. But this is not the familiar addiction recovery story. Rather, it’s about the complex family environment that caused both Norman’s downfall and a series of interconnected traumas with his parents and siblings.
Take, for example, Norman’s sister Bella, who is only one year younger but still wears short white socks like a little girl, obsessively hoarding them and making sure they are folded symmetrically. Or Rabbi Zweck, a kind-hearted man who always wanted the best for his son, but behaves like an innocent bystander because he doesn’t want to acknowledge reality and understand his role in making Norman who he is. Or Norman’s boyhood friend David, whose impact has lasting and disastrous consequences.
And then there’s poor Norman, sent to a mental hospital to be treated for addiction. At first I thought that may have simply been representative of the time period, and marveled at how far we’ve come in understanding and curing addictions. But over time, as the real story emerged, it became clearer that Norman was both addicted and mentally ill. The ending brings some closure, but leaves many questions unanswered; overall, a poignant and very well-written novel.