I asked my mum to buy it for me and my mum said no. I won’t go into the slanging match that ensued (because it doesn’t paint me in a very good light), but suffice to say I remained convinced for some weeks afterwards that my parents were the worst parents in the world and that I’d probably be better off as an orphan.
How I wish I could go back in time and put a copy of this book into my eight-year-old self’s ungrateful hands. Because I think it’s safe to say Jeannette Walls’ childhood was far worse than mine.
I’ve given The Glass Castle three stars, because I’m really not sure how I feel about it. It was such a readable book, it really kept me turning the pages, and the writing was pretty good, but it left me kind of confused and unsettled after I finished it and it’s taken me a couple of days to sort my thoughts out.
The Glass Castle is the memoir of Jeannette Walls, a journalist born in Phoenix, Arizona to two of the most crazy-assed people I’ve ever read about. The book starts with her earliest memory, of catching on fire whilst trying to cook sausages on the stove, aged three years old while her mother paints in the other room.
Jeannette and her brother and two sisters had a pretty awful upbringing. Her mum was mentally ill and her dad was a raging alcoholic. They lived a nomadic existence around Arizona, renting houses until they got kicked out or chased away for not paying bills and spending all their spare cash on booze or art supplies. Of the two, her father seems to have moments of genuine affection for his children, but he still manages to let them down at every turn. The ‘Glass Castle’ refers to a daydream of his, where he kept promising his children that one day he would build a glass castle for them all to live in. I’m not sure the children were all that bothered about a glass castle; they probably would have just been grateful for a house whose roof didn’t leak and that had running water.
The catching on fire episode led to Jeannette being hospitalised for six weeks and receiving skin grafts, but her mum tells her that what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. Unfortunately, this is fairly par for the course where Jeannette’s family are concerned. Over the course of the book the children are neglected, starved, ignored, groped and generally left to raise themselves. It’s truly terrible to read and the fact that Jeannette not only kept her sanity, but also managed to turn her life around by running away from home to New York City aged seventeen is remarkable and admirable.
The thing that left me confused about the book is this: Jeannette’s parents abused her in every way is it possible to abuse someone: emotionally, financially, physically and they stood by and did nothing while she was abused sexually. They have no redeeming qualities, whatsoever and are crap in every way it is possible for a parent to be crap. The only thing they don’t do is actually murder any of their kids, although they put them in plenty of situations where they could easily have died.
Yet, despite this, Jeannette really seems to love her parents, especially her father. I mean, she grumbles to them about the fact that she and her siblings are actually, properly starving (they spend a lot of time digging food out of the rubbish bins at school), but her affection for her parents is very evident.
And it’s not like she clings to her parents and accepts her situation because she doesn’t know any different. She knows that her parents are ridiculously neglectful and that having a slopping bucket in the middle of the floor as the house’s only toilet is not right and that parents should provide food for their children on a regular basis, and yet when social services come round to their house she chases them off. I kept thinking, ‘How? How did she think that being in care could possibly be any worse than her current situation?’
The bit that confused me the most was the very end of the book. The final scene involves the whole family sitting around Jeannette’s house on Thanksgiving, drinking a toast to her dad and cheerily reminiscing about all the life-threatening situations he used to put them in.
Seriously, I kind of had to rub my eyes and re-read that scene, because I was thinking, ‘No! You’ve just spent 350 pages telling us how god-awful your childhood was! Why are you now romanticising it?’
Jeannette even mentions her father in her acknowledgements, and not in a bad way. She doesn’t say, ‘Yeah, and fuck you, dad. Fuck. You.’ Which is what anyone could be reasonably expected to say if they had experienced everything Jeannette and her siblings had.
I wouldn’t call this a great book, but it’s totally readable and pretty fascinating in a car-crash kind of way, but ultimately it left me feeling slightly confused.