Not many books leave me speechless, drained, but exhilarated by the turn of the last page. Even fewer affect my emotions to the point where I shed a tear because something in the story resonates with something deep in me.
To Kill A Mocking Bird by Harper Lee was the first book to do this when I read it aged 16. It changed my whole outlook on the world and ignorance in particular.
This week, many years on, A Greater World by Clare Flynn also touched me in a similar, profound way.
Both these novels have injustice and unfairness at their core.
As in life, these novels have defining moments that shape the characters and their values.
I recall several defining moments from my childhood where I felt I’d been treated unfairly. I’m not sure I realised or fully understood the impact of these moments at the time, but they shaped my life.
reading the riot act
Due to my fascination with the words around the photos in the newspapers my father enjoyed, he taught me to read before I went to school. For some unknown reason, this antagonised my first teacher, who told me off in no uncertain times, making me an example in front of the class.
Why she did it, I don’t know. But I was so incensed with the unfairness of her outburst that I walked the mile and half home that lunchtime, vowing never to return to school.
By the age of six or seven, I was already a storyteller, embellishing my tales to make them more exciting. Then one of the lads in the group called me a liar. When he walked away with all the other children in the group, I had a choice to make.
If I went with them, I was admitting I’d lied, when I hadn’t. So I went the other way, as I have for most of my life, refusing to compromise my values, no matter how unfairly treated and judged I felt.
My father died from a heart attack when I was eight. At the time, I didn’t know how little I knew about him. My memories are as scant as photographs of him. I suspect the unfairness and injustice of his early demise hampered my life for many, many years to come.
My Italian mother dealt with her feelings by blaming him for everything, but because she couldn’t read or write English, I was left to me to deal with government agencies, local authorities, the tax man, and the teachers at my schools. We were poor, dependent on the State, and forced to move from the house that had come with my father’s work.
But it wasn’t until I passed my 11+ exams and went to a grammar school that I understood how unjust and unfair life could be. I was judged and condemned by many, but not all, of my piers for being poor. I was a scrounger because I had free school meals and uniform courtesy of the welfare state. I was a lowlife because I lived in a Council house.
I felt so humiliated and embarrassed, I never brought anyone home.
falling on deaf ear
The final injustice was losing the hearing in my left ear when I was 14 because a lorry knocked me off my bicycle. An elderly lady witnessed the driver cut across the road to go down a side street, catapulting me off my bike. I spent four days in a coma and four months undergoing hearing tests.
But the witness refused to give a statement or testify. The driver claimed I rode into the side of his lorry and that was that. I can’t begin to tell you how unfair and unjust that felt at the time.
I vowed then to always stand up and report any wrong doing I witnessed, and to testify if needed.
Maybe this led to me becoming an environmental health officer. The job combined my concern for the environment with my sense of justice and fair play. Like a policeman, I enforced laws to protect public health, but I could also ensure food businesses were treated fairly, operating to the same standards.
Fair play and justice is at the core of Kent Fisher, my crime-solving environmental health officer. In No Accident, he’s solving a murder and fighting those who use the system to their advantage to take more than they deserve.
That’s why the unfairness and injustice heaped on Elizabeth and Michael at the start of A Greater World had such a profound emotional effect on me.
Which books had a profound effect on you?
Have you had any defining moments that shaped your life?