It’s London, 1969 and 16 year old Jane doesn’t know it yet, but her life is at a crisis point. Between the moon landing, her widowed magician father, the great Mr Magikoo’s girlfriend Mia Mia, Jane’s Auntie Ada and her best friend Karl, Jane’s about to grow up in a rush.
Panayotis Cacoyannis’s The Madness of Grief is more than a coming of age story – it’s an exploration of notions of truth, perception, forgiveness and the complexity of relationships. The backdrop of the moon landing, with one minor character questioning whether it’s a hoax, is just one aspect of the story’s preoccupation with the idea of what is real versus what is not.
While the moon exerts a pull on the underlying idea of what’s real, an older event holds the key to the peculiar relationships of Jane’s life.
Jane’s mother was killed in a stage accident ten years ago during a Mr Magikoo stunt. Val’s death is entwined with her father George’s stage persona, forming the foundation of the themes of The Madness of Grief. Almost nothing is what it appears to be and how the characters understand their lives is a huge interleaving of guilt, lies of omission, blame, pain and misunderstanding. Throughout the narrative, what seems to be true is regularly stood on its head, and then upturned again as layers and layers of secrets and unspoken histories are revealed.
The story takes time to hit its stride, but the moment Jane walks in on Mia-Mia in the bathroom to discover her father’s girlfriend is a man, everything you thought you knew is thrown into the air.
In one particularly eventful night, Jane’s life is thrown into disarray, visited with violence, loss and even more revelation. Much is made of the disruption and pain that evolved from her mother’s tragic death and how grief has twisted blame, guilt and love as a result.
Some events which seem unforgivable are leavened with kindness and viewed through a prism of life having more than one truth to be told. So many of the protagonists are influenced for good or bad by others in their life – Karl’s sense of entitlement fostered by his controlling mother; Mia-Mia’s choices in the face of discovery, George’s guilt bringing him to hide his love for his daughter behind a crass facade; Ada’s cruel pleasure in blaming George for Val’s death, in part a response to how their mother favoured George’s needs.
Feelings can turn on a pin when sudden realisations and revelations fundamentally alter what we think we know. Some truths are brutal and best left unsaid; some lies are kindnesses; some acts are less cruel than ill-informed and sometimes, we’re willing to forgive that cruelty when it’s part of something larger.
Some of the abrupt narrative switches back in forth in time are difficult to follow to begin with, but the result is an intriguing and layered study of the vagaries of human nature. Those layers are densely packed and it can take a while to unpack, but what’s clear is that nobody is just one thing – not even the worst thing they’ve done. And even when the reader is less willing to forgive than Jane is, you can at least agree that foolishness and grief can make you do mad things.