Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Inadequate: The inadequate molester is the sex offender who least resembles social and behavioural norms. He is characterised as a social misfit, an isolate, who appears unusual or eccentric. He may be mentally ill and prefers non-threatening sexual partners.

Martin John’s life, we are told, was shaped by a dentist’s waiting room.

There were rumours.
Other rumours.
Other girls.
Other moments.
Same boy.

Martin John now lives in South London. He has a bike to stop him going on the underground. He buys the Irish Times and a British broadsheet every day, the later rotating: he won’t buy ones with headlines that worry him, ones with the word petrol or pervert.

Every Sunday he phones his mam and every Wednesday, he catches the 2.30 pm train to Hatfield to visit his Aunty Noanie. He has a job as a security guard which he mostly does at night. His life is regimented – by task but also by the refrains and the circuits he completes. In this way, he and his mum – from afar – keep Martin John in check. Or attempt to.

At home, videotapes are stacked floor to ceiling. On one wall, nine years’ worth of Eurovision Song Contest recordings. On the parallel wall, meddler research: ‘endless hours of videotapes of people speculated on the news’. His mam’s warned him to make sure one of them doesn’t take his photograph.

The house Martin John lives in belongs to a man named Ralph who’s in prison. Martin John’s acting as live-in landlord renting the upstairs out, preferably to illegal immigrants who don’t stay for long. He’s already made a mistake though with a woman from one of the Baltic States who he found unconscious in bed, having attempted suicide and now Baldy Conscience – ‘A Chernobyl-fucking-cloud of a mistake’ has moved in. Baldy Conscience has stayed too long; he’s messed with Martin John’s regimented lifestyle and there will be consequences.

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Schofield has written a novel I suspect few writers would dare attempt, even if they thought they had the stomach for it. Through a third person subjective viewpoint, we see Martin John, molester, through his own thoughts and actions. Schofield is clever about this though: her choices about language and structure make this view elliptical and repetitive. With a skilled, precise approach, she uses Martin John’s rituals and circuits to show, through language, the way he avoids thinking about what he does and what he’s done. She also uses it to wrong-foot the reader, playing on alternative meanings. For instance, on an occasion where he considers being taken to hospital to be assessed under the Mental Health Act, we aren’t privy as to why he’s been detained but, of course, we’re aware by this point that there has been an incident and rumours of others.

He can discharge. He did discharge. He has discharged. Many times has he discharged. To stop him, they’d have to prevent him under the Act. Was he a danger? You never quite knew with Martin John. He was persuasive, solid like a crow who could persuade you he was a crow.

The structure of the novel means it’s a long time before we get to know the details of Martin John’s behaviour. The incident in the dentist’s waiting room isn’t revealed until after the midpoint of the book and it acts as a catalyst for further revelations both from Martin John and his mother.

And it’s his mother who I found really interesting. There is a point to which Schofield skilfully manipulates the reader into some level of understanding of Martin John, particularly through the holding back of information that’s difficult to digest, but it’s his mam I found myself empathising with.

There was an advert where the radio-mother [of a drug dealer who robbed a post office] spoke to tempt the audience to keep listening, I botched up motherhood her voice said. Find out after the break, Did she botch up motherhood? annunciated the presenter. Martin John’s mam turned the radio off.

She’s conflicted with thoughts of wanting to keep him out of prison – she knows what the other inmates would do to him – but also wanting to keep him away from her. She’s scared of him. But as the novel progresses, we discover there’s more to Martin John’s mam and we’re left questioning not only whether she did the right thing but also what we would do in her situation.

Two-thirds of the way through Martin John there’s a line which ends with the words, ‘but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us’. Schofield reveals herself in that line – it can’t have been an easy novel to write – but also that the idea of exposure (pun intended) for Martin John, his mother and his young victim (who we meet briefly, now a mother herself) is also a difficult concept. For the reader, this is a difficult read in terms of the themes and the moral dilemmas the novel raises. However, it’s absolutely worth it for Schofield’s dynamic use of language and structure. Martin John is a novel that lingers.

 

Thanks to And Other Stories for the review copy.

 

0 thoughts on “Martin John – Anakana Schofield

  1. I picked this up in a bookshop yesterday, funnily enough, but decided against it having already bought four others. Perhaps I should take another look.

  2. I admire the writer for taking this on – I simply wouldn’t want to be there in my imagination for the length of time it takes to write a novel.

  3. The two things I love most about this novel is the author’s courage to write it, and the unthinkable circumstance of being Martin John’s mother. A place that so many mothers are in, but we don’t really give it a lot of thought. This novel really puts us there. I have no idea what I would do – probably cry a lot.

    • Yes, it was the mother’s story that got me. The sheer horror of knowing and wondering whether any of it was your fault. No idea what I’d do either, I’d be distraught.

  4. Did you read Tampa by Alissa Nutting or Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates? I think both fit into this category of following around the “monster” and getting her/his perspective. When Nutting’s novel hit, people went nuts.

    • Oh I read Tampa and reviewed it. I thought it was very good. I was still a teacher at the time and was trolled on Twitter – how could I be praising the novel when I was a teacher etc. As though you can’t read crime novels and not be a murderer. I don’t know if I could write one though, it’s a long time to spend in the head of someone whose behaviour is quite unpalatable.

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