The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead

Book #599
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published February 21, 2012)

The Man Who Loved ChildrenSam and Henny Pollit have too many children, too little money, and too much loathing for each other. As Sam uses the children’s adoration to feed his own voracious ego, Henny watches in bleak despair, knowing the bitter reality that lies just below his mad visions. A chilling novel of family life, the relations between parents and children, husbands and wives, The Man Who Loved Children, is acknowledged as a contemporary classic.

This novel is the dysfunctional family writ large. Dad is a civil servant naturalist with superficially benevolent ideas about the world and mankind, but with a heavy dose of sexism, a leaning toward eugenics, a disdain for literature, and most importantly a massive dose of narcissism hidden beneath the superficial shell. He looks initially like a fun dad, ring-master of “family fun day” on Sundays, and seemingly the younger kids enjoy him, but he contributes to the impoverishment of the family, belittles the children in various ways (including speaking a nauseating baby-talk to them), and has a major war going on with their mother.

“Mothering” (a nickname he coined, that she hates) is a former heiress who is less self-involved than she appears in some ways, but who speaks hatefully to the kids, especially the eldest who is a step-daughter, spends much of the time withdrawn or absent, and seems incapable of a kind word about anyone.

The eldest daughter Louie is the child who gets the most attention in the novel, but I had a soft spot for Ernie, the eldest boy, who is the only one in the family with financial sense. We watch the family unravel from a marginally middle-class existence in Georgetown to abject poverty and emotional chaos in Annapolis after the father becomes unemployed. The emotional toll of family life on the kids, particularly Louie and Ernie, gets clearer and clearer and leads them to desperate acts.

I found this an oddly enjoyable, but nonetheless bleak, read. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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