Author: M Jonathan Lee
Publisher: Hideaway Fall
My GoodReads Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I had made up my mind to like 337 ever since the voice of the as-yet-unnamed narrator pulled me out of my world straight into his story in the first chapter.
Reading on, I met 12-year-old Sam, younger brother Tom, his father, mother, and paternal grandparents, Gramma and Gramps at their annual picnic. There is an air of slight unease at the picnic which Sam latches on to and passes on to us.
The next morning, Mum disappears, leaving behind her rings and a note addressed to their father.
Then we’re back to the present 25 years later. His father calls him to let him know that his grandmother is in a nursing home and that she is dying. Tom is in London, living in a haze of substance abuse and music, and can’t be persuaded to go. It’s up to Sam.
And even though Sam has not seen his grandmother in 19 years, not since they had a huge argument, he agrees to go and see her. Against all odds, Gramma begins to show improvement, even sitting up to have conversations. Sam uses the opportunity to question her, hoping to get answers to the question of why his mother abandoned him and his brother. There is so much he does not know. Why would a loving mother desert her children?
What is the truth? Will he know it before Gramma dies? Will he ever find the closure he seeks?
The book is written in the first person PoV of Samuel Darte. Some of the chapters were very short. I loved the chatty style with which Sam lets us into his world. You get the hint of abuse, but the pace is very slow, and we learn facts very slowly, as they might be understood by the child that Sam was or as he feels comfortable revealing them to us.
Samuel is a good man who believes that every creature needs love. You feel for him, still being bullied even as a grown man. You feel for him, his life and that of his brother, arrested by tragedy and broken family dynamics, unable to ever restore the balance of their lives.
The writing is poignant and real. I have waited at the deathbed of a family member for long enough to know how painful it is. The descriptions of Gramma at St Dymphna are not pretty, but as starkly real as they come.
There were a lot of asides relating to Sam’s work-from-home situation, but they help us to see the dead-endedness of his life. The hours spent on the MySnug homepage attest to the emptiness of his life as he fills the ruthless minutes, his whole life an exercise in doing time. His investigation into his mother’s disappearance beats time with the timesheet that his company requires him to maintain.
Sam’s family is not a warm place of comfort to begin with. His grandfather, ravaged by memories of the war, takes out his demons by bullying his wife and family. His father learns the same behaviour and acts just as badly towards his wife. Both women are subjugated by their husbands. The only difference is that Gramma stays, while Mum leaves.
We come to know of how Sam’s family dynamics are forever altered by the disappearance of his mother, the subsequent turmoil that he and his brother are thrown into, the police interrogations, and the emptiness in their lives. We learn about his relationship and brief marriage and how it disintegrated.
We see the abuse that is a constant in their home, and through it, the author paints a picture of the hidden scars that children bear as a result of this toxic atmosphere in their home. We learn about lives gone haywire, when we are pushed into erroneous decisions and misjudgments.
The characters were all real and flawed, all messed and messing with others. The story grew so organically, emerging out of the character’s actions that even though I was really annoyed with the manner in which one of the characters behaved, it didn’t feel like a plot hole, but as the huge blunders that real people unthinkingly commit.
Sam, for the most part, and later, Tom, were well etched, mending fences and making the best of the cards that grownups, who should have known better, had dealt them.
The best part of this book for me, apart from the story and the characters, was the language. I loved the similes. The vibrating phone hanging precariously like a mountaineer over a precipice. The inside of Gramp’s mouth while he is eating is like being in a kayak or on a waterslide.
Sam tells us about the fake stuff masquerading as news while real news is crushed like ice in a blender.
The steam from Sam’s kettle dispersing in all directions like the mushroom from an atom bomb.
A hanging silence fills the space between us like a hammock between trees.
Like a bucket under a neglected tap.
And the best: Sam’s mother’s voice, as recreated in his memory is honey and candyfloss and golden syrup and sweet tea. It is clean as cotton and fresh as toothpaste. It is soft and clear and sounds like purity itself.
In a later chapter, he describes her voice in this way: It is the sound of pure crystal glass. Of precious stones. Of innocence.
The last few chapters have an air of finality about them. The end of a marriage, a life nearing the end, and hopefully a release from the trauma that has been Sam’s to bear for almost all his life. But the end is also about reconciliation with Gramma, re-connection with Tom, forgiveness and a letting go of the past and all that was, and opening oneself to the present and what is here and now, allowing it to grow and flourish.
Sam shows himself to be a bigger and better man than his father and grandfather ever were. There are lessons this book emphasizes, about relationships and family, that aren’t even said. This was a beautiful book.