The Madhouse by TJ Benson; A Review


Let us paint a picture, shall we?

You embark on a journey into the woods. As you walk, your legs slip and you stumble into quicksand. You are confused because you did not see it coming. You begin to sink with your arms flailing, and your voice screeching out of fear. Your heart is thumping against your chest and you feel a terrifying sense of helplessness. So you squeeze your eyes shut bracing yourself for complete immersion as your arms go halfway into the mud. Then, your eyes fly open because you feel a strong grip on your shoulder pulling you out of the mud. Your heart is flooded with relief that you will not die today, howbeit you are left bruised, filthy and battered. This is what The Madhouse will do to you, should you venture into the precarious journey of reading it.

That said, take it from me that there is nothing figurative about the title of this book. Every character is mad and they all live in a mad house. It is a book that revolves around a dysfunctional family, the different struggles, vices and problems they encounter both individually and together as a family. It shows us the relationship between the father Shariff, mother fondly called Sweet Mother and their children – Max, Andre and Ladidi. It weaves themes such as family, love, religion, sexual abuse and so on into the story.

While reading the book, it got me thinking about parenting and how so much of an herculean task it is. Like someone would say and I agree, parenting is basically winging it. Arm yourself with information and certifications all you want, the truth remains; you have absolutely no control on what your children eventually turn out to be. This is scary because one expects to get favourable results after expending great effort into any venture, parenting inclusive. Children will be exposed to situations outside of your control, take for instance, Ladidi in the book, who attended a boarding school where she was consistently bullied and slut shamed. Also Andre, her half brother, who found himself in an Orphanage where he endured sexual harassment from an older guardian. These amongst other things, would go on to shape their lives.

At the beginning of the book, the story unfolds with a scene in the kitchen where the father and his two grown children, grieving their late mother, try to bake a cake using a recipe she left behind. The writer then takes us on a journey back to their childhood, adolescence, their different life paths, and the parents’ marriage. He meshes different timelines of events as he unravels their history, such that you are confused about the exact period the events occur. As you read, what stands out is how very disjointed the story is, so much that you do not begin to make any logical connection between the different parts until the final chapters where the writer makes an attempt to tie everything together.

Also, the dialogue between the characters through out the book was a tad unrealistic. Their actions and nuances seemed farfetched causing loopholes in the plot. I did not feel that these were real people having real life conversations and living real lives. Consider the conversation that ensued when a school principal confronts a student he caught wearing contraband clothing;

‘Come here. Are you a student of this school?’ he asked, anticipating a potential disciplining session, and Yusuf saw in the man the personification of order. His blood was hot and instead of tucking in his shirt and buttoning it up, he punched the principal in the face and shouted ‘We want free love!’ over and over again. Fist in the air, he looked down at the withered man who couldn’t rise, not so much from the physical blow but the act of the blow itself; the principal simply couldn’t comprehend it. Or maybe he was scared the SS3 boy would strike again. ‘We want free love!’ Yusuf chanted, storming out of the library.

I believe a good book is one (regardless of its genre or setting) you can resonate with through its characters and the writer is able to carry you along to its final destination.

“Clarity’s important to me. I forget who said that ‘Prose should be as clear as a window pane.’ I’m very much in that school, and it’s the kind of fiction I like to read. The kind of writing that I like to read is writing that is clear. I think it’s very easy to confuse something that’s badly written as something that’s somehow deep. If something is incomprehensible and the sentences are bad, we’re supposed to say, ‘Oh that’s really deep.’ It’s not the kind of fiction I like to read, so I guess maybe when I’m editing I’m thinking about that. I’m thinking that the sentences I really admire are sentences that are lucid.” – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from a conversation with Zadie Smith for the NYPL podcast

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