Emma Donoghue’s new novel — her first for children — is set in a chaotic Canadian household with four parents, seven children, a rat, a cat and a three-legged dog.
Thrown into the pandemonium is a curmudgeonly grandfather, whose mind is starting to decay. Donoghue has dedicated the book to her mother, who also suffers from dementia and has said that she felt everything written for children about the condition had a “dreary tone” whereas she wanted to handle it with “a little bit of spark”.
The Lotterys Plus One is certainly lively. It is a world away from Room, Donoghue’s bestseller about a mother and son held in captivity. That was a horror story, this feels more like a fairy tale: the parents, two gay couples, find a winning lottery ticket and raise their brood (some adopted, some biological) in a mansion they call Camelottery.
Room’s imprisonment has been replaced with independence (the children are home-schooled), and its misery with joy — at least until “Grumps” arrives and proves himself a nightmare house guest.
The protagonist is Sumac, a precocious nine-year-old who was adopted at birth and is well on the path to turning into a no-platforming “snowflake” come university. She suffers Grumps’s arrival most keenly and eventually makes cruel plans to eject him. The family nerd, she spends the novel learning Sumerian, and keeps quoting the phrase “nuzu egalla bacar” — “ignoramuses are numerous in this palace” — only to realise how unenlightened her treatment of Grumps has been.
Not that he’s a sympathetic character either. So it’s a credit to Donoghue’s writing that you understand his pain at being uprooted from all he knows and plunged into the relentlessly right-on Lottery family.
They have echoes of the brood from the film Captain Fantastic, but I found the Lotterys — with their penchant for slogan clothes and sanctimoniousness — shorter on charm. And though Donoghue sets out to create an ultra-diverse family — Sumac’s sibling, four-year-old Brian, was born Briar — it hasn’t subverted all the children’s book clichés. Predictably, Sumac’s least favourite relative is her beautiful eldest sister Catalpa. The young reader even seems to be invited to enjoy her falling flat on her face.
As she also showed in Room, Donoghue is adept at developing a family language. So “imagine” becomes “imagic” among the Lotterys as Brian can’t annunciate it, and family meetings are “fleetings”. The Lotterys have their own customs too: on birthdays, writing a letter detailing what they love about the recipient. The flaw in the book for me is that I think children will struggle to find much to love about Sumac.
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