This books is absolutely brilliant. It moved me emotionally on so many levels, I won’t be able to do it justice but I thought I should mention it as one of the best books I have read in my entire life.
I stumbled across Pagan And Her Parents like with most books by browsing the shelves in a book store, letting book titles or book covers jump out at me, making me want to pick them up and read the back of it. Michael Arditti's novel sounded very intriguing especially since it has been reissued this year after its initial 1996 publication. 15 years is a very long time and thanks to Stonewall's invaluable campaigning the UK has seen some significant law changes with the Equality Act (2010).
Michael Arditti's book reads like an autobiography and for at least half of the book I was convinced it must be one just from the way it was written and the amount of detail presented. He tells the story of Leonard Young whose best friend Candida Mulliner passed away after a long, painful illness, leaving her 5 year old daughter Pagan behind. Leonard and Candida have been the closest of friends for the past 20 years, but not romantically involved as Leonard Young is gay. They have lived together for most of those years and Pagan grew up in their shared house. When Candida dies, she states in her will that Pagan should live with Leonard as her legal guardian. Candida grew up as an adopted child in Brighton/Hove but has had no contact with her adoptive parents, nor has Pagan ever met them. After Candida's death, those same adoptive grandparents start to fight for Pagan in court to have her removed from Leonard's care and live with them full time, mainly based on the grounds that as a homosexual man he is most unsuitable to raise a vulnerable child.
It reads like a straight forward court drama but ‘Pagan and Her Parents’ unfolds to be so much more. Most strikingly is the way it is narrated. Michael Arditti uses a sort of diary form, where he lets Leonard Young have intimate conversations with his deceased best friend Candida. But it doesn’t feel like you are reading his journal as if discovering it by accident but more as if you could see his thought process in his head. By ‘process’ I mean that it includes emotional interruptions of thoughts and confusions. Those make him jump between his narration of actual events and the shared memories that flash up in his head or cause emotional reactions. Through this way of narration Arditti lets us be part of the grief his protagonist is going through by writing to his deceased friend and when the court proceedings unfold later in the book, we have come to know Leonard so well, that it is easy for the reader to understand the emotions he must be going through.
The second half of the book is less focused on Candida and their shared life together, but the reality of the here and now shifts the focus to Pagan’s well being and Leonard’s future with her. The intimacy and grief with which he spoke to Candida shortly after her death sometimes raised the question of wether he was too dependent on his friend while she was still alive. The ongoing trials in Brighton highlight the struggle with his own identity. Especially his sexuality is used as the main argument that he is unsuitable to care a for a child and it eats away at him and fills Leonard with self doubts.
I don’t want to give away the story and what exactly happens during the court hearings as their intensity and importance are part of why this book is such an astounding novel. But Arditti's knack for detail that I have tried to describe in Leonard Young's character doesn't stop with him. All the characters are described and written with such researched detail, I could visualize them with ease and hear them from inside Leo's head - the way his mind works struck a most familiar chord with me, I immediately bonded with it. I also liked Pagan, she was in no way a perfect child, but her behaviour seemed normal and accordingly developed for her age. Cheeky, showcasing her mother's heritage and so sensibly written and researched during the court hearings. It all added to why I thought this was an auto biography.
From a structural point of view, the chapters in the book were separated by Affidavits in the beginning, later on followed by articles published in the Guardian, written by the main character Leonard Young to give you an idea of his professional side and a slight change from only talking to his dead friend. Followed by some more short excerpts from legal documents towards the end of the book. This helped the flow of the book and kept it realistic. It countered the intimacy of Leonard’s relationship to the deceased Candida, which as a reader you would easily get sucked into, so the reality of the documents gave you some fresh air and a time frame in which the book unfolds.
Although the story of the book should not be possible to happen nowadays as told by the author back then, Leo Young’s experience is still of importance. Homophobic prejudice still exists especially when it comes to caring for children. The BBC only reported today that a Tribunal rejected a catholic care’s gay adoption appeal:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-13205558 And rightly so.
But just because we do now have laws in place where gay and lesbians cannot be discriminated against on grounds of their sexuality, does not mean that all the problems will go away. Education still needs to be done across the country, which is why charities like Stonewall are so important. (Read a brief overview of their great work here: http://www.stonewall.org.uk/about_us/2532.asp)
Most people in the UK might not have heard of the Equality Act. This is why gay visibility is so important. The inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in TV programmes, books or films in a way that is portrayed in the same manner as heterosexual people in healthy, happy and successful relationships is worth so much. If done right, homophobia can be stamped out without people actually realizing it.
Michael Arditti's book can do the same. More people will now know of gay parents, not necessary by adoption, there are so many ways for gays and lesbians to have a family. 'Pagan and Her Parents’ can be an inspiration for someone to realize their own homophobia and learn more about it. The book is also an acknowledgement of the history of the Equality Act and how far we have come. It looks at the modern family in a different light. We have long moved away from the traditional family and this is only one possible way of providing a loving and stable home for the many desperate children who are in need of one.
'Pagan and Her Parents' should be a must read. Apart from its obvious importance it is an emotional roller coaster ride on so many emotional levels, I had to pick up my jaw from the floor several times and the frown on my face was deeply concerning at times. But it has also very touching moments that made me sit on a public bus with tears in my eyes and I didn’t care. It is inspirational and heartwarming, go read it!