Pilcrow, Paperback
3.5 out of 5 (2 ratings)


Meet John Cromer, one of the most unusual heroes in modern fiction.

If the minority is always right then John is practically infallible.

Growing up disabled and gay in the 1950's, circumstances force John from an early age to develop an intense and vivid internal world.

As his character develops, this ability to transcend external circumstance through his own strength of character proves an invaluable asset.

Extremely funny and incredibly poignant, this is a major new novel from a writer at the height of his powers.




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Review by

This novel was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2008.The narrator, John Cromer, is the first born son of a mildly eccentric Royal Air Force pilot and his neurotic and socially obsessed wife, who is such a beautiful baby that he appears on a magazine cover in post-war Britain. A couple of years later he is tormented by severe joint pains and fever, and is diagnosed with acute rheumatic fever. He is condemned to bed rest, on the advice of his physicians, as no medications are effective in treating this disorder. This inactivity, however, causes his joints to become stiff and immobile, as he actually has Still's disease, a form of juvenile idiopathic arthritis, which leaves him unable to walk, stand or even sit upright.His parents arrange for him to attend a converted hospital for children with Still's disease, where he encounters a stern but loving matron, and several sadistic physiotherapists and nurses. The other patients, mainly girls, appear to be more fortunate than he, as they were diagnosed earlier and given corticosteroids, a new and potentially revolutionary therapy. The long-term effects of treatment later become tragically apparent; despite his greater immobility, John is actually the most fortunate of the group.In later childhood, he is transferred to a school for chronically ill boys, where he undergoes an intellectual and sexual awakening as he enters his pre-teen years.The first 2/3 of this work was elegantly written and a joy to read, with rich descriptions of the life of a chronic child in mid-20th century institutions that were frequently harmful and repressive. Despite these conditions, John manages to get as much fun out of life as he possibly can, and is as mischievous as one would expect from a boy in his situation. For me, the wheels fell off the story after he moved to the new school, and his sexual experiences with his fellow students and his male teachers overshadowed everything else. The story also ended abruptly, as it is supposedly the first book in a trilogy about John Cromer.I'd give 5 stars to the first 1/3 of the book, 4 stars to the middle 1/3, and 2 stars for the last portion.

Review by

I loved the first 2/3 of this book, in which John narrates his life story from toddler-hood until about age 13/14. The last third of the book dragged for me a bit, perhaps because I felt that many of the episodes were repetitious, and perhaps because my personal reading preferences do not include the subject of a young boy's first sexual experiences (homosexual in this case).John's narrative voice is delightful, and his story is for the most part humorous, made all the more so by the fact that he is paralyzed. He was struck at an early age by a joint disease initially diagnosed as a form of rheumatoid arthritis, for which the doctor prescribed complete bed rest and immobility. (Ever try to keep a 3-year old still? John's mother does a valiant job of keeping him quiet and amused.) Several years later, the correct diagnosis of Still's Disease is made. The treatment for Still's Disease is the exact opposite of immobility--the patient should move as much as possible to keep the joints lubricated. As John states, "I had done nothing of the sort. I had been lying down on the job, and bed rest had let the disease's effects run riot through my body. Still's disease had taken away my power of movement without meeting even token resistance." This book is in no way a downer, however, nor could it even be classified into the "disease of the week" genre. John is able to make even descriptions of his wallpaper amusing, and keeps us interested in reading about even the most trivial events in his life:"By now it was a big thing if two wet leaves of different colours, one red, one yellow, happened to be plastered against the window....It was headline news if Dad hung up his trousers in the bedroom upstairs without taking the change out of his pockets, so that the coins rained down on the floorboards."The characters around him are vivid and humorously real. On his mother:"Mum hoarded the recipes from magazines, but was afraid to try them until she had scanned subsequent issues in search of corrections and misprints. She had once been tempted by a recipe for home-salted beef, only to read in a later issue that the amount of saltpetre had been overstated by a factor of ten, making it potentially toxic. We might all have been killed by a typographical error--except that I wouldn't have touched it. I alone would have been left alive to charge "Woman's Own" with manslaughter by misprint."John's mother and her mother ("Granny") have certain unresolved issues:"Granny was always a vivid figure to me, though not in the oppressive way she was to Mum. I stood up to her sometimes. I knew no better....I remember Granny squashing Mum flat one day just by rearranging the washing while she was out."Granny's household was one in which, "there might as well have been a motto in cross-stitch over the fireplace, reading HOUSEWORK IS A SERIOUS ENTERPRISE, and a companion piece on the opposite wall declaring ANY FOOL CAN MIND A CHILD."Granny's advice to John:"What she did when she couldn't sleep, she said, and what I should do also, was to imagine herself being inside one of the cells {of a honeycomb} with a little brush, a brush as soft as a whisper. Only when my brush had done its work and the little chamber was perfectly clean and shining should I move onto the next chamber with the whispering brush. In this way the mind might be calmed and sleep invited. I liked the idea of polyhedral infinity, my mind as the empire of cells needing proper maintenance."John's Dad to some extent was a man of the 1950's, perhaps disappointed not to have a son to do sports with, and to some extent jealous of the attention John received from his mother. "Dad always said I could wrap Mum around my little finger, which was a delicious image. I pictured a mother shrunken, made pliable, a plasticene woman I could wear like a toy ring or a sticking plaster." Yet his Dad is the one who believes John can have a "normal" future. When John said he might want to be an actor when he grows up and his mother throws cold water on that idea--"Be realistic--what part could he play?"'Well,' said Dad, 'he could be an old lady sitting in an upright wing chair in the corner.'"'But what sort of role is that?' she pleaded."'Oh I would say that it's quite a good one!' he shot back. 'For one thing, he could direct operations like a general in battle....'"John's world expands when he is sent to the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, run by an expert in Still's Disease, although in those days, John says, "being an expert in Still's Disease didn't actually mean you knew very much." The doctor is also an expert in childhood leukemia, and half the patients are leukemia patients. Many of the children aren't quite sure which they are, knowing only that the leukemia patients usually die. The ward's bullies led by Wendy (who spoils "Peter Pan" forever for John) use this uncertainty to keep the other children under their thumbs. The treatment for the Still's Disease children consists of physical therapy by sadistic technicians. "Walking was an absolute passion and obsession of the establishment... Not to walk qualified as...a moral defect, but was no good telling that to my joints." Still, John keeps the story of his life in the hospital interesting and funny.After several years at the hospital, John is sent to The Vulcan School for Disabled and Intelligent Boys. Its headmaster had been crippled in the war, and John says, "I was alerted to his disabled status, which was presented as a wonderful treat for me, as if he had let his legs be smashed by a tank just to make me feel at home." It is at the Vulcan School that John begins puberty and his focus shifts to sexual fantasies about the various school masters on whom he develops crushes, as well as his plotting and maneuvering for some sort of sexual encounter with one of the boys to whom he is attracted. Admittedly, John's narrative tone continues to be engaging, light-hearted and self-deprecating. His descriptions of the travails of two boys with immobile joints, who have finally managed to find themselves alone and without supervision, trying to attain some sort of sexual touching can be amusing. However, I didn't enjoy this part of the book as much as I did the story of John's more innocent years.The book ends with John's decision to leave Vulcan and attend a traditional boarding school. Pilcrow is the first of an intended trilogy. The second volume has been published, and I will probably read it at some point. The third volume is not yet published.

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