"Harmony" Carolyn Parkhurst


Iris is your "typically developing" child, your yardstick for normalcy. You take her for haircuts without worrying she'll scream the moment anyone touches her ears. ....Essentially from the moment she was born, Tilly has always been Tilly. She met most of her milestones and had all her shots, and there's never been a moment you can pinpoint as the instant she went off the developmental rails. 

Autism isn't exactly what Tilly has....labels oversimplify but they also serve a purpose. "She's on the autistic spectrum" gets you understood; but when you say PDD-NOS, all you get are blank stares. 

Alexandra and Josh Hammond have two daughters, Tilly and Iris. Tilly is clever but has behavioural issues that have seen her expelled from every school she's attended. As she hits adolescence her increasing anarchic behaviour gets worse and Alexandra, in desperation, turns to Scott Bean, self styled parenting guru, for help. 

They move to Harmony, Bean's "family camp" for "troubled children" in New Hampshire. No phones are allowed and car keys are confiscated; there is a creeping menace that Camp Harmony may not be the healing retreat that the family is seeking. Then a catastrophic event changes their lives forever. 

This is a very well written book told through the alternating viewpoints of Alexandra and Iris which offers different perspectives about the family's dynamics and the everyday effect Tilly has on their lives.

Alexandra's chapters are cleverly written in the second person and I found the use of "You" a very direct way to force the reader to engage with her character and develop empathy towards her situation. Is it not difficult to feel for her as she struggles to deal with Tilly - who although the family adore her and recognise the gifts and talents she has, is an exceptionally trying child to parent. Irrational, unpredictable, never sure what might upset her, frustration that she can't manage simple tasks and the embarrassment at her sudden interjections or announcements in conversations are recounted with honesty. Some of the situations and Tilly's use of colourful vocabulary are entertaining and humorous; this assures the reader of the affection and love Alexandra has for Tilly but also underlines how inappropriate Tilly's behaviour is in public.

"Don't assume anything: if you tell her not to pick up her food with her fingers, she may lean forward and put her mouth directly on the plate. ....Don't let your own anxiety about her behaviour get in the way of giving her what she needs."

Alexandra's love for Tilly is undeniable. Her anxiety and concern for her daughter is heart rendering. She feels guilt that she is somehow responsible and has dedicated herself to trying to do the right thing for Tilly. Parkhurst's writing in these sections is not sentimental or over indulgent. It is succinct, blunt, down to earth. I particularly enjoyed Alexandra's wry comments about imagined posts on FaceBook  that reflected the pressure -or dare I say shame- of being a parent of a child with antisocial behaviour.

Iris's narrative is told in first person and Parkhurst has created another distinctive voice - different from her mother's but as convincing and well rounded. Iris can recognise the way Tilly's mind works differently:

"It's like the rest of us have our brains cooped up in a little box, and we're always bumping into the walls whenever we try to think about anything too big......Tilly never hits those walls. It's like she flies right through."

But she also aware of the issues the family deal with and is well practised in coping with potentially tricky situations. The moment when she realises the consequences of being the "normal" child in the family is poignant:

"I'm totally average and it's disappointing to know that "Neurotypical" is the way my mom describes me to people when she doesn't know I'm listening."

Iris is an intelligent, mature, emotionally balanced child. When they move to Camp Harmony it is she who seems to have the more advanced understanding of the other "troubled" children there rather than the charismatic Scott Bean. For example, following a particularly dramatic moment when one of Scott's planned activity (involving fire....) goes wrong, the focus is automatically on Scott - not the fire or the "troubled" child. Iris is "the only one who thinks to put my arms around Hayden and give him a hug as he cries and yells for the bright, pretty thing that Scott gave him and then took away."

Parkhurst leaves the reader to consider the exact danger of Camp Harmony and Scott Bean. Bean is a persuasive person who prays on parents at their most vulnerable. The extract from his Parenting Blog is full of rhetorical tricks, playing on modern parent's guilt and neurosis about things like technology and the deadly invisible dangers of plastics etc in a calculated and premeditated manner. His final threatening statement that "These kinds are coal-mine canaries, and we can't even see how hard they're struggling to stay upright on their perches" would push any sensible parent into his arms. Let alone a couple who are at their wits end.

"In another world you make it work. .....[imagine that] on the night Scott Bean comes to speak at a library not far from your house, Iris is sent home from school with a stomach bug, Josh is out of town and you don't want to hire a sitter. .....Later when you hear his name on the news you shake your head and think, "What a wacko"....You would never get mixed up in anything like that.....But, instead, this is where you are. Sitting with your husband in the last shambles of the day."

I enjoyed this book. It comes highly recommended by Jodi Picoult which is a solid indication about what kind of story it is and who it will appeal to. Helen Ellis is also a fan and I can imagine it will be well received by anyone who wants an accessible, down to earth, well written story about a family under pressure and what happens when they take a risk to save themselves. There is no "sugarcoating" as another reviewer also comments, but the prose is compassionate, endearing and satisfyingly compelling.

Harmony is published by Sceptre on 8th Sept 2016 in Hardback.

Carolyn Pankhurst was born in New Hampshire and grew up in Boston. She is the New York Times best-selling author of "Lorelei's Secret", "Lost and Found" and "The Nobodies Album". She has a son with Aspergers and drew a lot of her inspiration for "Harmony" from her personal experience. She now lives in Washington DC with her husband and their two children.

My thanks to Bookbridgr and Sceptre for the advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.

For more recommendations and reviews please follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)


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