The two narrators in this intense novel are the same person at different ages: the child of eight years who struggles against sibling displacement; and his twenty-eight-year-old self, scarred by his early years and obsessively revisiting them. The narrative documents these two periods of emotional turmoil in the unnamed protagonist’s alternating monologues. This anonymity may signify a lack of a more integrated self, and will not be a problem for the reader. As reviewer, I will simply use personal pronouns when referring to him.
This is no ordinary sibling rivalry; Robert, the boy his mother dotes on and cares for, is a foster child, the latest in a sequence of boys she looks after in her own home. But Robert is unlike the other boys: he is quiet and well-behaved, his needfulness deep but not neurotic. That particular condition is the narrator’s, a small boy who has always felt second-best in his own family. His great attachment is to his father, a tolerant and compassionate man, a bit of a character who enjoys the colourful phrase. Cleverly, the father is passively quoted by the son, whereas the mother is given active dialogue, increasing the sense of conflict he feels with her. The son is tormented by the withdrawal of his mother’s love, and the adult he becomes compulsively revisits this anguish. If this makes the novel sound like an obsessively closed circle, that’s because it is.