What have Julius Caesar, Socrates, Napoleon Bonaparte, Truman Capote, Agatha Christie, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Joan of Arc, Ian Curtis, Feodor Dostoyevsky and Alexander the Great all got in common? They all suffered from epilepsy and are joined presently by an estimated 40 million others worldwide. To this list we can now add Lily O’Conner, the fictional creation of debut author Ray Robinson.
Lily O’Conner is absolute hard as. I’d like to see her and Nicola Monaghan’s masterful creation Kerrie-Anne (The Killing Jar) locked up together for a couple of months in the Big Brother house. I don’t know who would come out on top but there would certainly be a lot of claret on the floor. It seems at the moment, or perhaps it is just the books I’ve been sent to review, that female characters are becoming stronger, both physically and mentally. This may well be related to a growing feeling within society, for whatever reason, that you can’t really rely upon anyone but yourself. Kerrie-Anne for example has to take control of her life because her parents are so awful. Lily suffers a similar fate but needs to retain control of her life to simply survive. The wrong dosage of drugs could easily lead to her death.
During her childhood, Lilly robs, lies, fights and becomes a small scale arsonist which leads to her being put in a home. This may seem disastrous to most, but when given the alternative it was probably a lucky escape. Her mother barely gets out of bed, even on Christmas Day and shows her children the kind of contempt which is usually reserved for enemies. It is an all too familiar narrative. Indeed, the reason that Lily suffers from epilepsy is because her mother chucked her down the stairs as a baby because she wouldn’t stop crying.
Her upbringing is absolutely awful and one scene in particular really took me aback. I had to read it a few times before I realised what it meant. Lily idolises her mother’s partner Don and they have baths together. Then when she starts her period, Don tells her that they can’t bath together anymore. I naively thought this was him recognising boundaries but it wasn’t. He simply had no interest in abusing an elder child. He liked them young and pure. I found this scene gut wrenching and I commend Robinson for highlighting abuse so cleverly.
There are countless other forms of abuse which Lily encounters throughout her adult life but I don’t want to spoil too much. Let’s just say all of them would easily make it as topics on the Jerry Springer Show.
The story itself is a kind of social thriller in which Lily and her two brothers inherit some money after the death of their mother. Unfortunately, the family are all spilt up and so Lily becomes detective in search of her untraceable brother Mikey. Her other sibling Barry ‘slick’ O’Connor is easier to locate and is a big time poker player living the American dream. Her journey of discovery leads to her befriending a lesbian called Mel who shows her real compassion. Lily naturally is suspicious and unfamiliar with such positive emotions and finds it almost as hard to deal with as her epilepsy. It is perhaps fitting that a stranger is the only person in her life to offer some real love.
All in all this was a very enjoyable if unsettling read. It started a little slow and disjointed but then I really got into it. It becomes more apparent as the book progresses that such an opening is necessary to put you in the mindset of the main protagonist and reminded me a little of Irvine Welsh, thanks to the pictures and unconventional sentence structures.
I would strongly urge readers to buy this book for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a lot of information on homelessness which is an issue I personally believe should be at the forefront of any political agenda which deems itself democratic. Secondly, it gives an insight into a medical condition which is absolutely perplexing. I had no idea the amount of effects which epilepsy could induce. For example, her seizures are so intense that she is often left with broken bones, black eyes and cut face. ‘It’s like being married to some psycho I can’t ever divorce’ Lily explains. Given that the novel covers every aspect of epilepsy, from social stigma to the mental and physical effects, we have selected it as our choice to celebrate World Mental Health Day.