Raise your hand if you know what a pilcrow is. I didn’t, before reading this epic story of a boy growing up gay and disabled in the 1950’s. It’s a paragraph mark. Like this: ¶. Pretty much obsolete nowadays, it’s just one source of intrigue and fascination for our hero, John Cromer.
Struck down with what they think is rheumatic fever at a very young age, he is prescribed bed rest. Unfortunately for John, he actually has Still’s Disease, which presents like rheumatic fever, but bed rest is the worst thing for it. By the time the misdiagnosis is discovered, John’s joints are all, to varying degrees, ankylosed and he is permanently disabled. Unable to increase his physical strength, he concentrates on his mental strength instead. Consequently, Pilcrow reads as a beautifully erudite, extremely funny and yet almost wholly innocent pseudo-memoir.
Whether you love or hate John Cromer will be decided early on, when you read musings such as: “I’ve never really taken to the clarinet as an instrument – all that mellowness is a fraud as far as I’m concerned. The first person to pick up a clarinet sucked up a syrup of lies right up into the mouthpiece, and from then on no-one’s been able to get a truthful note out of it”. If that kind of prose endears you to its creator, then you’re in for a treat. If you threw up in your mouth, this is not the book for you.
For this kind of prose fills the 525 pages of Pilcrow. And we only cover the first 16 years of John’s life, his time spent in two schools, his burgeoning sexuality, his strained family life are all discussed in an almost Proustian manner, over just 4 chapters. Yes, there’s many sub-chapter headings in them, but still. 4 chapters. Even if you think he’s the best thing ever, sticking with John Cromer over such intimate detail and inordinate depth does require some patience. But it’s patience which is highly rewarded. How can you not adore a teenage boy who notes of his mother, on one trip home from his boarding school, “there’s nothing a martyr likes less than being ritually installed among the kindling, not tied to the post but gripping it firmly behind her back, and then no-one having the common politeness to strike a match”?
Pilcrow certainly is a change of pace and a break from the norm where my usual book reading pattern is concerned. It ends with Adam striking a blow for his own independence and planning to go to a “normal” secondary school. It is the first of a planned trilogy by Mars-Jones and the second installment, titled Cedilla, was published in 2011. The third and final part is as yet unpublished. Who knows what obscure linguistic symbol it will be named after? At least I know what a cedilla is. That’s a start.