Monday 26 June 2017

Donoghue's YA debut is diverse with a capital 'D'

Children: The Lotterys Plus One, Emma Donoghue, Macmillan, pbk, 320 pages, €10.99

Branching out: This is Emma Donohue's first foray into YA fiction
Branching out: This is Emma Donohue's first foray into YA fiction

Sarah Webb

Irish writer Emma Donoghue's Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The film adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, won an Oscar for its leading lady, Brie Larson.

The accomplished writer has now turned her attention to younger readers with her debut novel for children, The Lotterys Plus One, inspired by her "nostalgic memories of growing up as the youngest of eight in 1970s Ireland". The Lotterys are a family of two dads - ­PapaDrum from Delhi, PopCorn from the Yukon (a couple) - and two mums (a second couple), Mohawk CardaMom and Jamaican MaxiMum. Their seven children are all named after trees and are all wildly different - Brian is a girl who identifies as a boy; Sumac, the narrator, is nine and adopted; and almost two-year-old Oak is tiny due to being shaken as a baby.

The book is diverse with a capital D. Even the dog, Diamond (the pets are all named after rocks), has three legs. None of the adults work - they gave up their jobs when they won the lottery after finding someone else's ticket on the ground. They bought a 32-room mansion in Toronto that they named Camelottery and settled in to raise and homeschool their children.

When PopCorn's 82-year-old father almost burns his own house down - he is in the early stages of dementia - he comes to live with the Lotterys with amusing results. The family rarely flush the toilet (they are ultra green), eat 'strange' food and their unstructured lives seem chaotic to the older man. The children are equally baffled by his traditional values. Will both learn to adapt and live in harmony?

The black-and-white illustrations by Caroline Hadilaksono are excellent and her illustrated 'family tree' at the opening of the book is a useful reference when there are so many characters to keep track of.

I really wanted to like this novel. We need more diverse books, books featuring all kinds of families and all kinds of children. There's a lot to admire in Donoghue's writing. It's full of witty one-liners and cracking dialogue. The family has developed its own language, which is clever and engaging: family meetings are 'fleetings' and imagine is 'imagic'. But I longed for less cleverness and more emotional engagement with the characters. Sumac seems at times too self-aware for a nine-year-old and at other times naïve and cruel.

Donoghue has bravely stepped outside of her adult comfort zone and is to be commended for it. A smart, thoughtful reader of 10-plus will enjoy the gentle humour in this tribute to the modern family. Adult Donoghue fans might enjoy it, too.

Sarah Webb is a children's book commentator. She is currently the Writer in Residence in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown

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