Sunday 21 January 2018

The cult and a loving mother in despair

Fiction: Harmony, Carolyn Parkhurst, Sceptre, hdbk, 288 pages, €24.00

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
Rowena Walsh

Rowena Walsh

The prologue to Carolyn Parkhurst's novel, Harmony, is chilling. It isn't necessary to be a parent to start to wonder if it could happen to me. Could we be the subject of a news report causing people to shake their heads and consider just how desperate does a person have to be to allow themselves to be taken in by a charlatan?

Alexandra Hammond, a loving mother-of-two, is desperate. And lonely. Her marriage is under extreme pressure. Her elder daughter, 13-year-old Tilly, is brilliant, very possibly a genius, but she also seems to be on the autistic spectrum and her increasingly volatile behaviour has pushed Alexandra to make a decision, one that will have far-reaching consequences.

She has become involved with Scott Bean, a charismatic, self-styled parenting guru, who has offered a radical solution - total immersion in an almost off-the-grid camp for families with 'difficult' children. The camp lies deep in the wilds of New Hampshire, and it isn't long before this idyll reveals its dark heart.

The Hammonds are part of 'the Core', a small group of families who have given up their possessions to help the enigmatic Bean build his dream. They live by his edicts and teachings - forsaking the modern trappings of life that Bean believes have damaged their children - and help to pass these on to a series of paying families who attend on a week-long basis. Even when the adult members of the Core don't agree with Scott's ideas, their trust in him remains absolute.

Slowly, inexorably, the camp becomes a cult.

Alexandra and younger daughter, 11-year-old Iris, share the narration, with the former describing in heart-rending terms a spiral of despair; the slowly dawning, shocking realisation that Tilly was different to other children; and the exhaustion of trying to create a safe haven for a socially awkward child, who licks the floors of restaurants and propositions her father.

With Alexandra's relationship with Tilly's equally devoted father at breaking point, their second child suffering, it's easy to see how putting her family in the hands of the sympathetic Bean became the only viable solution for the Hammonds. Iris's alternate chapters and her observations provide momentum for the plot. A sweet-natured and bright child - described as her mother as NT, Iris is devastated to learn it refers to neurotypical, rather than natural talent - she is able to see through the inconsistent Scott.

The tension mounts as the reader keeps expecting to encounter the ominous events alluded to in Parkhurst's prologue. "In another world, you make it work. In another world, you never even hear the name 'Scott Bean'."

Parkhurst, a New York Times bestselling novelist and herself the mother of a son with autism, writes movingly and with real compassion about those parents driven to the brink by their children.

Alexandra's chapters are especially compelling, her frustrations and anxieties captured perfectly, while the audacious Tilly is beautifully drawn. In contrast, Scott is a disappointingly elusive character, vague and unconvincing. And Harmony's denouement really doesn't deliver the drama so anticipated on the opening page. However, this almost comes as a relief. Harmony is an unsettling novel that leaves the reader pondering 'what if?'

Parkhurst is an accomplished novelist, seemingly effortlessly achieving the trick of mixing difficult social questions - just what does it mean to be 'normal' and how do you cope if your child is not neurotypical? - with riveting storytelling.

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