Ordinary Human Failings by Megan Nolan

Set mostly in the early 1990’s, this is a book about the ways in which ordinary families find themselves on benefits and sinking fast in their emotional and social lives until a shocking event shakes them up and forces them to talk about their feelings and how they want their future to be.

An Irish family, the Greens, move to an estate in London to escape social judgements about a pregnancy and provide a new start for an alcoholic. Pregnant Carmel refuses to engage with her pregnancy or child and so Rose, her mother, takes over until she dies. And then the child, Lucy, is left in the hands of people who are incapable of looking after her. It is at this time that Mia,a young child also from the estate, is killed and the last person she was seen with was Lucy.

What frames this story is the involvement of a journalist from a tabloid newspaper who whisks the family away to a hotel and puts them up there to keep them away from other newspapers but also so that he has ample time to interview them, dig into their lives, and find out all their secrets. Whilst this family is vulnerable, they are not gullible and in their own ways fight back. We get flashbacks to Waterford in Ireland where we see their backstories and why they are like they are.

The story is not as black and white as this description may make it seem. Tom, the journalist, is troubled by what he is doing and suffers for it. He still manages to think only of the great story he can uncover, with his motivation being told he has done well by the editor. Always a dangerous motivation pleasing others. Nolan also describes the alcoholism very well – the on and off drinking, the ‘I will only drink such and such a drink’, the gradual sinking down until you are drinking non-stop and lost to those who love you. It’s quite heartbreaking.

If you had to connect a weather to this book it would be a grey, cloudy day where the clouds go from white to black and every shade inbetween. It is only at the very end that you see a few beams of light pierce the overcastness wrapped around the family because how do you undo years of neglect that a child has experienced, Especially a child in Lucy’s position.

There is no great big, dirty secret to reveal about this family, just lots of small ones that are quite ordinary but accumulate and trap the inhabitants, passed on from one generation to the next. And so the newspaper pulls the story and Tom is left with nothing other than a little more loathing for himself.

The end of the book shows the family a few years later but we don’t get to hear about Tom and I would have liked to know how someone of those times who was unable to see past his own experiences faired. Did he succeed in tabloid journalism or did it drive him to alcohol?

A really interesting look at a time in our not-too-distant past which is being played out in courtrooms at present. What lengths would tabloids go to in order to get a story?

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