Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann
Mad Hatter is an impressive, emotional, disturbing, and, finally, extremely rewarding novel. Author Amanda Hale emphasizes in her Afterword that her book, though based on real events in her family, is fiction: it “is my father’s story, as imagined by me.” But it is much, much more than that. This novel is at once difficult and brilliant. It is a memoir of sorts, reconstructing what were real events from the old—and perhaps erring—recollections of the author, her family, and people who knew them. But Hale goes deeper, using fiction to try to “create memories,” as she puts it, to get at the mysterious, confusing figure who was her father. It took over fifty years for this accomplished writer to get up the nerve to do this and another twenty to research and write it. In the process, she has striven to shed a lifetime of grief, shame, and regret caused by the actions of a man she only wanted to love as a daughter. And though she fails to explain her father completely (which would be impossible, in any case), she achieves a sense of completion with her own emotions about him. And this is the great achievement the book offers the reader.
The novel opens in June 1940 as Christopher Brooke (the real names have been changed) is carted off to prison for his membership in Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, which was opposed to the war against Hitler and thus a domestic enemy. Brooke is the privileged son of a rich hatmaker—an engaging sort, handsome, with good looks and strong social skills. He has a beautiful wife, Cynthia (from a similarly privileged background), and three young children. But Brooke has become an active follower of Mosley, and thus now an enemy of England in wartime. He is interned in a series of prisons, ultimately one on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. Eventually, he is allowed to visit his family for short periods (conceiving the author’s character, Katie, on one of them) and is freed after three years. But life does not return to normal. Brookes is obsessed with creating a new movement that purports to be Christian and non-political but that celebrates Hitler as a “scourge sent by God to cleanse the world.” He increasingly stays at their centre, Kingdom House, and though he is a loving father to his children when he is at home, there is an emotional distance that is never overcome.
Hale tells the story in several alternating voices: her own (mostly as a child, but at the very end as an adult), a third-person narration, and that of Mary Byrne, the live-in Irish housekeeper who took care of the children for Cynthia while Brooke was in prison. This technique of having different voices has the effect of giving alternative perspectives as if the novel is trying to examine these events from as many angles as possible to get at what is and remains a very elusive truth. Byrne’s sections are in many ways the most vivid, ranging from her observations of the English class system to her own family’s activities back in Ireland. (It is reasonable to assume that the family’s actual housekeeper supplied these details.) And they lend a dimension that the story needs. It is clear that the family itself, even Cynthia, is always grasping for something that is ultimately unreachable.
The first half of the book is fascinating and moves along quickly. The pace slows in the middle, however, just after Brooke has been released from prison. This mirrors the limbo the family now finds itself in. Will they regain any sort of normality? The answer soon reveals itself as a big No. Byrne has left the family, and the story continues, alternating (with a few contributions from Byrne) between the third-person narrative and Katie’s first-person experiences as Brooke begins his new venture of proselytizing the “Kingdom of God on Earth.” Suffice it to say that the child Katie is unable to get a sense of Brooke as a person and father.
After Brooke’s early death, the book winds down quickly, for as Hale states, it is “my father’s story.” But the search for who her father was remains.
The prose is often beautiful and never makes the mistake of indulging in any sort of pseudo-psychological theorizing. In the end, Hale is satisfied, not that she has found an ultimate explanation, some sort of objective truth behind her father, but that she has reached a kind of emotional truth, a process that has given her back her “humanity.”
Mad Hatter is published by Guernica Editions.