Thursday, 14 March 2013

Born Weird, by Andrew Kaufman

Is there such a thing as coincidence? If there isn’t, what’s the explanation for “coincidences”? Fate? A greater being? Or a Grandmother with an unusually large heart?

“Until you realise that coincidences don’t exist, your life will be filled with them,” Grandma Weird said. “Everywhere you look there coincidences will be. Coincidence! Coincidence! Coincidence! But the moment you accept there is no such thing, they will disappear forever and you’ll never encounter another.” (pp. 9)

The Weird family - whose name is the result of a clerical error several generations ago - is a family of mysteries. They are both a family like every other and a family like no other. They argue together, play together, banter together, alternately resent each other and love each other. But as each of them were born, Grandma Weird bestowed upon them their own tailored blessing: Richard keeps himself safe, Abba always has hope, Lucy never gets lost, Kent can beat anyone in a fight, and Angie will always forgive. But, although meant well, as the years have gone by, these blessings have in turn become curses - or ‘blursings’ as the family comes to call them - and Grandma Weird has decided to take them back, to give her grandchildren a second chance, and tasks Angie with gathering her siblings together so that Grandma Weird can oblige. Not such an easy task: the siblings, now in their twenties and thirties, have scattered to the four (or five?) winds, and Angie has just thirteen days to track them down and persuade them to come.

In many ways Born Weird reads almost like a comedy of errors. Overflowing with quietly black humour and with a beautifully arranged plot, it is irresistible. In addition to the mystery of the blursings and Grandmother Weird’s uncanny and somewhat manipulative abilities (the Weirds’ nickname for her is, after all, The Shark), Kaufman weaves in the mystery of their father’s disappearance. Is he dead or alive? This, like the blursings, has shaped the sibling’s paths through life so far and if they are truly going to be able to make a fresh start, solving it is another nail they need to bang into the coffin.

I love the family dynamic of these five brothers and sisters; I love that each sibling has the exact same reaction to Angie’s story (“Good God why?”); I love Andrew Kaufman’s clean and unflowery style of writing. I love the idea of the blursings, and Kaufman’s quiet exploration of each one: how each was chosen, the positives they were meant to impart, their unforeseen consequences and how they have shaped the characters’ lives and choices. In a book full of apparent coincidences - though, as above, Grandma Weird makes it clear to us right from the beginning that there is no such thing as coincidence - the blursings bring me back to the question of fate: how much control do we really have over our lives? As far as the Weird siblings are concerned, it seems they have very little.

I was really fascinated by Kaufman’s writing style and spent much of the book trying to identify exactly what it is he does. Essentially he keeps to short sentences and doesn’t really go in for long descriptive passages, which I think helps to maintain clarity and focus on the characters and their foibles. He also surreptitiously taps into my internal paradigms - for instance, there is mention toward the beginning of the book of Grandmother Weird’s ‘Tone’. Although he actually says very little about the Tone, I know instinctively what Kaufman means, because I can relate his small comment to my own similar past experiences. This is ‘show’ not ‘tell’ storytelling at its highest form, and quite masterful.

In fact, Born Weird from beginning to end is masterful. Although they have barely spoken for years, as the Weird siblings gather together, revisit their pasts and reassess their futures, they interact with other almost as if they are still children playing and as if they have never been apart. They know each other, understand each other, trust each other. And that is beautiful.

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