The Things We Know Now, by Catherine Dunne
A sensitive and insightful novel portrays a family trying to come to terms with the death by suicide of their son after he is bullied by schoolmates
The Things We Know Now
E ven in the happiest and closest families, there is a gulf between parents and children. Young people occupy their own world, full of fears and joys that they never share with their families. Catherine Dunne ’s moving new novel looks at what happens when tragedy forces one couple to cross that gulf and uncover their son’s other life. The story begins with a nightmarish shock, as the novel’s central narrator, Patrick Grant, and his wife, Ella, return home from an afternoon of sailing to discover their beloved teenage son, Daniel, has killed himself. He was, as his father said, “a boy who had it all. Love, security, financial certainties, talents to burn”. What could have led him to take his own life? What did Ella and Patrick not know about their son?
In the first half of the book, Patrick looks back on the past few decades in an attempt to find out what happened. Ella is Patrick’s second wife; they met when he went to her for counselling after the death of his first wife, Cecelia. He has three grown-up children from his first marriage, Sophie, Frances and Rachel.
His relationship with Rebecca, the eldest, has been fraught ever since she was a little girl, when she witnessed her mother crying over one of Patrick’s several affairs.
Although Patrick and Cecelia reconciled and went on to have a seemingly happy and faithful marriage, Rebecca has never forgiven her father. And when she discovers that he’s going to marry a woman 20 years his junior, she finds it impossible to accept. As far as Rebecca is concerned, marrying Ella is Patrick’s ultimate betrayal of her own beloved mother.
Her sisters welcome Ella into the family, but when Daniel is a born just a few months after Rebecca gives birth to her own eldest child, she feels even more alienated from her father.
As the book goes on, we see the family through both Patrick’s and Rebecca’s eyes, and it becomes clear that while Patrick may not have truly known Daniel, the gulf between himself and his eldest daughter may be even greater.
Gradually, the source of Daniel’s torment is revealed. A good-natured, kind and talented boy, who loved art and boating, he had always been open and cheerful until starting secondary school. After his death, Patrick tortures himself by remembering things that now clearly look like warning signs but that he dismissed at the time.
Eventually Patrick discovers the truth, and it’s not giving away too much to say that Daniel was badly bullied by a gang of schoolmates, a topic Dunne handles with sensitivity and insight. Throughout the book, she reminds us that bullying is nothing new; we see that Patrick was also a victim of vicious bullying at his boarding school, 50 years earlier.
The bullies of his youth, whether fellow pupils or the teachers themselves, tormented their victims with brutal violence. But modern technology enables psychological torture, and the ubiquity of internet-enabled devices, from laptops to smartphones, makes escape from the bullies impossible even when a child is at home. Dunne’s depiction of Daniel’s torment and increasing desperation is both harrowing and convincing, as his schoolmates’ taunting turns into a concentrated campaign of horribly imaginative cruelty.
Although Patrick’s is always the dominant voice, the story moves between several narrators, from Daniel’s friends Edward and Sylvia to Rebecca and Daniel himself. The narrative voices aren’t as effective as they could be; the adult characters, including Patrick and Rebecca, whose narratives form the bulk of the book, often tell their stories in a curiously formal way that risks distancing the reader. And Ella, the bereaved mother, is a strangely opaque character; even the chapters supposedly told from her point of view are written in the third person.
At times she seems too good to be true: constantly understanding, reasonable and thoughtful, always saying and doing the right thing. She lashes out once, but in a completely relatable way. What drew her to the much older Patrick? What does she really think about his children, especially the increasingly bitter Rebecca? We never really get into her head.
But her feelings for her son and her grief at his death do feel painfully real. The section of the book devoted to the week after Daniel’s suicide is deeply moving, and Dunne writes brilliantly about the Grants’ pain and bewilderment; after taking down Daniel’s body after he has hanged himself, Patrick finds himself illogically believing, or rather hoping, “that the boy in my arms was not my son”. The couple cling to each other, each of them unable to let the other out of his or her sight, and their all- consuming grief and rage – and that of Patrick’s daughters – is superbly evoked, as is their slow journey towards some sort of peace.
Throughout this powerful novel Dunne shows a keen and compassionate eye for the complexities of family dynamics, and as both Patrick and Rebecca start to come to terms with Daniel’s death, she reminds us that although the gulf between parents and children is always there, sometimes you can learn how to build a bridge.
Anna Carey's debut novel, The Real Rebecca , won the Senior Children's Book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her second book, Rebecca’s Rules , was shortlisted for the same prize in 2012.