Review by Kyle Schoenfeld
Martin John is not interested in being an easy book. Not easy on its readers, and not easy on its title character. And why would it be easy? Martin John is a mentally ill sex offender, in and out of hospital wards, prodded on by a dysfunctional family and allowed to continue his abuse by a system that seems not to know what to do with him. Ultimately, author Anakana Schofield explores the question of guilt. She is not afraid to assign blame to Martin John himself, or to his denial-laden mother, but she is likewise not afraid to address a “you” that encompasses the readers, the authorities, and society at large:
Did he have a role in it?
Did she have a role in it?
Do you have a role in it?
Do you think? (26)
The book opens with an index of Martin John’s “refrains,” the obsessive thoughts that serve him to prevent, justify, or obfuscate his misbehaviour, as required by the situation:
1. Martin John has made mistakes.
2. Check my card.
3. Rain will fall.
4. Harm was done.
5. It put me in the Chair. (9)
It is his list of safe responses whenever anyone questions him, his explanation for neglecting to clean the bathrooms at work, for exposing himself in public, for sexually assaulting a girl in a dentist’s office. It is an index to his mind and its circuitous logic (his compulsive circuits of the Euston train station become an important plot point). Consistent with this opening, the book itself spirals around these events. There is early discussion of the aftermath of the incident in the dentist’s office, but the incident itself isn’t portrayed until the second half of the novel.
What do we learn about Martin John? He has a long history of exposing himself in parks, of brushing against women on trains, of masturbating into rubbish bins, and at least one case of violently assaulting a girl. He works as a security guard, arousing himself by walking endless circuits as his bladder grows ever fuller. He avoids cameras and hates words that start with “P.” He is tormented by a man he refers to only as “Baldy Conscience,” a man who, he believes, exists only to persecute him in every aspect of his life. He lives a regimented life imposed by his mother, who has sent him from Ireland to live in London, and we slowly realize the lengths she will go to in order to keep him out of sight and (she thinks) out of trouble.
But we learn these things obliquely, and the full chronology of “situations” is never nailed down. As the book says, “it won’t be told in sequence because these things never happen in a sequence, do they now Martin John?” (218) It becomes clear this is a downward spiral, with a growing urgency to his flashing and ever more extreme cases of self-harm alternating with fruitless hospital stays. But the lack of chronological ordering makes it difficult to tie causes to effects or to guess at how it all ends.
The book hits its stride in the second half, and particularly when it shifts from Martin John’s point of view to those of the survivors of his attacks. Martin John’s mind is an uncomfortable space to inhabit. Whatever explanations—environmental, biographical, psychosexual—are suggested, there is no justification. And this is most clear when we see the grown woman who is haunted by his assault when she was a child. It colours her relationship with her husband, it shadows her relationships with her children, and it will never leave her. This is the moment it becomes clear that every time the British Transport Police let Martin John off with a warning, every time his mother shouts at him to stop talking, every time his boss shrugs off another “situation” because Martin John is a reliable employee, it is not only our protagonist but the survivors they are failing.
“It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” (319), Schofield writes. “It was a time when people didn’t see stuff” (187). What makes this book so necessary is the way it makes us see what we’d rather not see.
Kyle Schoenfeld’s short fiction has appeared in the anthology This is How You Die and the journal Bricolage. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.