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Susan’s Bookshelves: Lovebroken by Finley de Witt

This book arrived on my desk, sent by the author with my permission because Finley de Witt and I have a mutual acquaintance. This quite often happens to people like me who write about books and sometimes it’s bad news. I have been sent books so squirmingly amateurish that I can barely read to page 3, let along the end. There was – thank goodness, because it can be awkward – none of that with Lovebroken. Finley’s beautifully written memoir had me well and truly hooked from first to last.

Finley, now a trauma worker in her 50s, has suffered all her life from mental illness, guilt and feelings she can’t understand. And most of it comes back to her monstrous mother. Lovebroken is, I suspect, partly a therapeutic exercise in coming to terms with the past. In that sense it reminds me a little of Jeanette Winterstone’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Margaret Drabble’s The Peppered Moth. They both had very difficult mothers (adoptive in Winterstone’s case) but neither did anything as dreadful as de Witt’s did. And yet … there is still, despite all that, the umbilical tie between mother and child which few people feel able to break and de Witt is very good indeed at conveying that guilty, troubled, despairing ambivalence.

Having grown up in Bradford the daughter of middle class (ish) dysfunctional parents who both had casual affairs, Finley went to Oxford to read English Literature and graduated with a First which may help to explain why she can write with such stylish flair. At university she acquired some stalwart – saintly almost –  friends who supported her assiduously though the difficult years which followed. Sometimes she worked in very low level jobs and she lived in some ropey accommodation in London as she pursued her pretty rackety love life.

Attracted to both women and men, she frequented gay bars and clubs and hooked up with many lovers. Her writing is gloriously graphic and I really like that. If you have a urge to “suck someone’s cock” then I’d much rather you said so than euphemised. But I shan’t be giving a copy of Lovebroken to, for instance, my elderly aunt who told me in horror recently how upset she was by Miriam Margolyes’s book Oh Miriam!: “Oh Susan, the language she uses and the things she does!”

In fact Finley’s exuberantly diverse sex life and flawed serial relationships which dominate the first half of the book are partly a mechanism to avoid facing the trauma in her past. The passion, the bullying and the hurt she suffers when a marriage of convenience which enabled house purchase is thrown back in her face are all a quasi side show, although the suicide attempt is a real crie-de-coeur. It isn’t until she finally meets a gorgeous man with extraordinary patience and more emotional intelligence than any counsellor (although she has a wonderful one of those too) that she finally finds monogamous peace in a little house in Hastings. Even then it isn’t plain sailing: for example, when she gets breast cancer or when her elderly parents visit. And it’s a measure of how difficult things are that the former is a lot easier than the latter.

The writing is crisp and witty. I underlined this paragraph for example: “The problem with dating a former Buddhist monk is that they tend not to have any money, unless it’s the one who founded the digital mindfulness company that became worth millions. My one wasn’t that one.”

Obviously I understand why she has changed the names of the people she writes about. I’m puzzled though about why she fiddles about with place names. Hastings, for example becomes Tastings and that seems pointless or, incomprehensibly esoteric.

I found this book richly compelling and it made me think long and hard about mental illness and parental responsibility. I recommend if warmly. It deserves to do well. And I sincerely hope Finley continues to find better health and healing.

Next week on Susan’s bookshelves: The Appeal by Janice Hallett

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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