This is a most unusual family drama, simultaneously frightening, funny, and intense. Sam and Henny Pollit have six children. Eldest daughter Louisa was a product of Sam’s first marriage; Henny has been nothing more than Sam’s brood mare, spawning an assortment of children that offer endless amusement to Sam and endless stress and torment to Henny. Sam is self-centered and without a care in the world; he prides himself on being the “fun” parent, organizing all manner of escapades with his children. He speaks in a language all his own, full of cutesy nicknames and odd turns of phrase. Henny grew up in a wealthy family, and cannot accept the reduced circumstances of her life with Sam. She lives beyond their means, both materially and socially.
Sam and Henny neglect many of the practicalities associated with raising a family. At 13, Louisa is far too young to shoulder these responsibilities and yet there she is, fixing breakfast every day, and making sure the household runs smoothly. Henny has never accepted Louisa into the family, and verbally abuses her. Sam showers her with pet names like Looloo, but also smothers her with his prying and controlling behaviors. Louisa longs for summer holidays, when she stays with her mother’s family:
For nine months of the year were trivial miseries, self-doubts, indecisions, and all those disgusts of preadolescence, when the body is dirty, the world a misfit, the moral sense qualmish, and the mind a sump of doubt: but three months of the year she lived in trust, confidence, and love. (p. 163)
Sam and Henny have such a poor relationship that all communication occurs through their children. Even Sam’s impending posting to Malaya is communicated to Henny via her eldest son. And when they argue, all hell breaks loose:
When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull would fall over the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments. Then the tornado would break loose again. What a strange life it was for them, those quiet children, in this shaded house, in a bower of trees, with the sunny orchard shining, the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside. (p. 326)
Louisa often finds herself caught in the middle of this marital drama, trying to break up the fights and protect the younger children. While Sam is away in Malaya, life settles into some semblance of order, and on his return it seems as if normalcy will continue. But a series of events dramatically change the family’s place in the community. Sam and Henny are unable to work through this together, and when Sam takes charge you just know it won’t end well. Louisa continues to serve as a stabilizing force, but increasingly resents Sam’s intrusion and control.
By now the “frightening” and “intense” elements of this novel should be clear. It’s strange and uncomfortable to admit that in the midst of all this, there are funny elements as well. Sam is larger than life. He’s a complete prat and yet amusing and likable. He and Henny share equally in their family’s dysfunction, and as much as she’s a victim of Sam’s ridiculous notions, I couldn’t help liking Sam more. But Sam does some really awful things to his children, things that (if they were real people) would scar them for life. As a reader, I felt really conflicted, which I think is by design. Christina Stead is able to make the reader feel like one of Sam and Henny’s many children — fond of both parents, hurt and abused, and completely caught in the middle.
This is not an easy book to read, but not for the reasons you might think. Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and it’s a bit like watching an impending train wreck. But the prose also makes its demands on the reader, particularly Sam’s invented language. However, those willing to invest the time and effort in this book will be rewarded in the end.
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