4 out of 4 stars
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Sometimes you come across a book so powerful the words jump off the page and lodge in your heart. The non-fiction memoir Survival: From a Broken Childhood to PhD by John Fahey is one of those books. The author takes a look back at an abusive childhood in post-World War II England, including a four-year idyllic respite living in Ireland with his paternal grandparents. Born illegitimate, his father is pushed to marry his mother when the author is seven months old. Even then, John’s nasty, alcoholic father continues to refer to him as “you bastard” and routinely abuses the entire family physically and verbally. Imagine a child having to read secretly for fear of getting caught and beaten. John loves to read and does exceptionally well in school, gaining entry through an education grant to a highly regarded school. His resilience and determination throughout a dismal childhood of violence and extreme poverty shines through in this story.
I was spellbound by this book. It is an unflinching account of a boyhood filled with fear, violence, avoidance, and, as the author states, “daily apprehension.” John’s recollections are vividly described, including the settings of post-war England with its poor neighborhoods and bombed-out buildings and picturesque rural Ireland. Ireland becomes a magical, promised land as he experiences unconditional love and happiness while living there. That wonderful experience, along with his strong Catholic faith, sustains John during the regular verbal and physical abuse inflicted by his father. The descriptions of his years in Ireland are uplifting while the painful memories of the rest of his childhood are heartbreaking to read. There are no Christmas or birthday presents and the author and his sister Patricia envy the children in a nearby orphanage as they hear the laughter from children playing within; at least, they knew those kids received presents. The one time relatives brought over Christmas gifts, his drunken father threw the presents into the coal fire.
The author’s lyrical writing style is a joy to read. The early sections about Ireland read like a love letter and are particularly heartfelt. The information about his family living in a poor neighborhood, with little money for even basic necessities, is told in a matter-of-fact way. When John is given an education grant to go to a better school five miles away, he is happy about more than receiving a good education; attending the grammar school at St. Mary’s College guarantees him a nourishing meal each day Monday through Friday and a container of milk in the mornings. To understand how much this means to him is to understand how much we take for granted in our daily lives.
John’s small victories and street-smart personality are realistically described. Although John has to turn over his newspaper delivery money to his father, he occasionally uses a portion of his earnings to buy broken biscuits, cookies, and fruit to share with his siblings from the outdoor market. He continues to do this in defiance of his father, who would beat him after finding less than the full wages. His newspaper route and babysitting job for an upper-crust family allow him to see possibilities beyond his harsh life. The babysitting job becomes a safe haven from his father and a quiet place to do his homework.
There is an uplifting tone to the story. Although the memories of a violent, poor childhood are traumatic, there is a sense of a light at the end of the tunnel. John is very motivated to better himself even at a young age. As with other true tales of this type, there are often guardian angels that do acts of kindness. This is certainly the case throughout John’s childhood and teenage years. At different times, there are instances of relatives, policemen, teachers, and average citizens showing concern for John and protecting him from his father.
This book has earned nothing less than 4 out of 4 stars. The author’s ability to rise above his harsh circumstances is truly inspiring and the writing is superb. Of course, readers who enjoy memoirs would like this book, but I would also recommend it to anyone who appreciates excellent writing in a book of any genre. I feel lucky to have read this story and grateful as I realize how much of my own life I take for granted.
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