You’ve all seen the show Black Books, right?
In the first episode, one of the characters accidentally swallows The Little Book of Calm. Rather than choking to death, he absorbs the book into his system, where it makes him inherently calmer.
It’s difficult to explain (and, um, much more serious than Black Books) but I feel as if I’ve sort of absorbed Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children. It’s something I carry with me now; a part of me.
I’ve devoted nearly two months of my life to The Man Who Loved Children. I read this imposing novel rather slowly, fitting chapters into the gaps between other books. I hate reading more than one book at once, but for Christina Stead, I made an exception. Always, I felt a strange mixture of eagerness and reluctance to return to Stead’s world.
Just reading the novel alone took me a month. It’s taken me another month to shuffle The Man Who Loved Children around in my thoughts to a point where I could actually begin to write this review. I’ve been unable to write about this novel for the longest time. My feelings about The Man Who Loved Children teeter awkwardly between firm, safe words and wibbly-wobbly feelings and intuition. In fact, I considered not reviewing The Man Who Loved Children at all…
But, at the same time, I know that this is an important book. I want to convince you to pick it up and read it, if you haven’t already.
Which means I need to get my act together and tell you why.
The Man Who Loved Children
by Christina Stead
Published in 1940
The Man Who Loved Children is an imposing novel. It’s sitting on the desk beside my keyboard right now, as I type. It’s a great, hefty lump of a thing – and I should know. I carried it around for around a month. The thick, lavender spine of my copy is wrinkled and curved.
Realistically though, at 514 pages, The Man Who Loved Children isn’t terribly long. It just feels that way once you start reading. It’s one of those novels that seems much bigger on the inside than it appears on the outside: it extends well beyond these mere pages. It is a world of its own, complete with its own language and set of rules.
Set in Washington of the 1930s, The Man Who Loved Children invites us into the everyday lives of the Pollit family.
With too many children and not enough money to support them, Sam and Henny Pollit live in excruciating poverty. To make matters worse, the Pollits’ marriage has degenerated to a state of constant psychological warfare. The couple sleep in separate rooms, communicating only when necessary through notes, or using one of their six children as a go-between.
Louisa, the eldest of the Pollit children, bears the weight of this ill-starred relationship. At just fourteen, she’s left to keep the household running while her parents, hopelessly lost in their own little worlds, take out their frustrations on her and each other. A promising writer, Louisa is just beginning to find the words with which to express herself, pushing the boundaries of an already-strained family to the point of collapse.
What makes The Man Who Loved Children so unforgettable is the way in which Stead crafts her characters; Sam Pollit in particular. I can say without a doubt that Sam Pollit is the most hideous character I have ever encountered. Towards the beginning of the novel, we see him feeding his youngest child by chewing up a sandwich and slobbering it into the baby’s mouth – for me, it’s this scene that typifies Sam Pollit.
Sam regularly lectures his children on any subject that comes to hand – from biology, to the most effective way to do the dishes, to his own personal brand of Pollit-ics. My favourite of his crackpot schemes is his elaborate plan to control the world’s population by killing nine-tenths of humanity in gas chambers.
In reality, Sam is little but a child himself. As his children grow older, he turns against them. He is the man who loved children – teenagers represent to him a mystery he can’t even begin to fathom. Stead’s title is spectacularly ironic.
The novel’s masterstroke is the way in which Sam speaks. He prattles to his children in his own ridiculous language, a baby talk so infuriating that Stead is forced to translate for him in brackets:
“Bring up your tea, Looloo-girl: I’m sick, hot head, nedache [headache], dot pagans in my stumjack [got pains in my stomach]: want my little fambly around me this morning” (p. 28)
Sam’s voice is catchy in the way genuinely annoying things always are. And it’s insidious: eventually, Stead just stops translating for Sam – there’s no need, we understand his language now. Towards the end of the novel, even her narrative voice begins to lapse into Sam’s tone from time to time. The Man Who Loved Children is a blistering condemnation of Sam Pollit; a character based on Stead’s own father…but even so, there is a touch of tenderness about Stead’s portrayal of Sam.
It’s easy to see why Henny can’t stand her husband. But, in her own way, she’s not much better. Born to a privileged family, Henny is filled with resentment for her husband and children and people in general. Bitter and disconnected from the world around her, Henny locks herself away from her own family, frequently threatening to leave, or kill herself.
The Man Who Loved Children is 514 pages of sustained horror. Reading this novel is an intense, exhausting experience. Stead immerses her readers in her world so completely, you’ll feel like you’re drowning in it. It’s overwhelmingly claustrophobic. Chances are, you’ll find yourself having to take long reading breaks at regular intervals, just to allow yourself the chance to recover. And yet, there are odd moments of levity scattered here and there. Many of my favourite moments were the ones that focused on Louisa and her obsession with her English teacher. But – be warned – these moments are few and fleeting.
I’m glad I didn’t write this review immediately after finishing the novel. It’s taken me all this time to fully appreciate The Man Who Loved Children. At first, I thought it was unnecessarily long – even a little on the self-indulgent side. But time has shown me I was wrong: everything that’s here is here for a reason. Yes, it’s long. And yes, it’s bleak. But while The Man Who Loved Children is a hard novel to read, just imagine for a moment, what it must have taken for Christina Stead to actually write this novel. The amount of energy that Stead has poured into this novel is astonishing.
I have nothing but reverence for The Man Who Loved Children. I’m already planning my next reading.
You need to read this novel. Not because I’m telling you to, not because Mr. Franzen likes it, and not because it’s an obscure Australian classic. You need to read The Man Who Loved Children because it’s an amazingly effective piece of writing.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Let me put it this way: look at the tags I’ve used for this post. That “Books that changed my life” tag? I don’t use it all the time, but I’m using it for The Man Who Loved Children. Just try getting this novel out of your head once you’ve read it.
In a word: