Phil Whitaker’s sixth novel addresses an issue that hits the headlines periodically: the failures of the family court system. Yet this is no searing indictment of under-funding in one of the most important services that the state offers the “hard-working families” our politicians claim loudly to serve. There are no scenes of mediation. The complexity of balancing laws against their practical applications aren’t unpicked. You is a point of view monologue, and its viewpoint is that of a divorced father who believes he has been cut unfairly out of a daughter’s life.
In short, we’re in the territory of Fathers 4 Justice, of “fuck-wit judges” and rueful “coppers” having to carry out cruelly misjudged contempt orders. Our protagonist, Stevie, is an art therapist whose ex-wife has estranged him from his daughter, the “you” of the title. The mother has managed this through allegations of abuse, and through the sheer force of her neediness. Stevie hasn’t heard from his daughter for seven years. When she was 14, “you” – the daughter remains unnamed throughout this book, as does the ex, who’s instead rather toe-curlingly called “Mummy” – announced to her father that she didn’t want further contact. But he has kept channels of communication open, sending cards and emails and posting on Facebook. His missing daughter has now turned 21, and he has suggested a reunion outside the Oxford house that was the family home.
You is set on the day of this possible reunion, with backstory filled in by two kinds of flashback. As he travels to Oxford, Stevie has a series of out-of-body experiences in which he whisks his daughter through space and time in order to show the girl, and of course the reader, what went wrong with his marriage and in his ex-wife’s childhood.
Life since the divorce is recounted through more conventional flashback. Stevie has joined a support group for parents who’ve lost access to their kids. The group is run by a female academic (“Prof”), and by a woman vicar (“Rev”) who’s undergoing the same loss herself: as when Stevie leads the group in art therapy, roles blur here in ways no real-life therapist would countenance. Mothers and fathers suffer alike but, strangely, all have undergone the exact same experience. A monstrous ex has taken advantage of initial de facto custody to lie about the excluded parent, telling both children and the courts that they were violently abusive; and then, when those allegations have been withdrawn, has played the system to make access visits untenable.
This is horrible stuff and, human nature being what it is, something that clearly does happen. But the trouble with a novel that offers a single, undeviating paradigm is that life, and art, go on in the interstices between such crystal-clear certainties. Whitaker, a GP and this magazine’s medical columnist, gives us none of the confusing nuance of real life: no stories in which, say, the accused has behaved in ways that are – without their realising it – emotionally abusive; or where circumstances conspired to suggest they might become violent even though nothing could be further from their mind.
At one point, Stevie offers the insight that “black and white thinking… all good… all bad” is a sign of damage called “splitting”. This is in fact a therapeutic cliché: and the reader wants to exclaim, “Yes!” While You portrays the solipsism and circular thinking of someone in the throes of obsession, it does so without pulling back to explore alternative stories. We’re left knowing this account isn’t insightful, but lacking the framework that would allow the novel to transcend the character of its narrator.
The reader can’t orient themselves. What, for example, to make of the extent to which this is a middle-aged man’s love letter to a teenager and/or a very young woman? “Mummy” is an old witch, but the “golden-haired” daughter is cut from different cloth. What, for that matter, to make of the fact that the novel mentions another daughter, only to forget about her for long stretches? And why are Oxford and its environs described in such literal detail? Most of all: how does “Mummy” herself frame her behaviour? What would her own obsessional thinking look like? If Whitaker were to unpack that conflicting account, this could be an insightful account of domestic tragedy. As it is, it feels like half a novel.
Salt, 272pp, £9.99
Fiona Sampson’s books include “In Search of Mary Shelley” (Profile).
This article appears in the 25 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum