Broken, by Daniel Clay

A tale of humiliation and brutality reveals how humans can become bestial
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The Independent Culture

How does a human being become a "ghost" and a "monster" locked away in a bedroom in a world of "shadows and dread"? This is the sad fate of 19-year-old "Broken Buckley". He was once a boy named Rick, before being beaten up by his neighbour, Bob Oswald, under the false assumption that he had raped his daughter, Susan, who mocks Rick for his sexual inadequacies.

Besieged by "violence" and "laughter", he suffers a breakdown, degenerating into an infantile state even as he teeters on the brink of adulthood. This is a novel whose plot and vivid, pared-down imagery bravely patrol the terrifying border at which the human blurs into the bestial and inanimate. Bob wrestles Rick "like a bull" until the latter's horse-like screaming resounds.

In a world governed by anger, fear and "raw, oily panic", he punches the wall and then his daughter's flesh. Interwoven with this trajectory of breakdown are disquisitions into what it takes to be "whatever it is we have it within us to be". Sharing their neighbourhood with the Oswalds and Buckleys are the Cunninghams: Archie, devoted father to Jed and Skunk, and their nanny Cerys, girlfriend of Skunk's schoolteacher, Mr Jeffries. He raises the question: "Is this a good way to be living?"

Jeffries charts his yearnings on the blackboard, educating the 11-year-olds about human aspiration, while his own desires are cruelly thwarted as his beloved conducts an affair. The tenderness of Skunk's schoolgirl crush on him is juxtaposed beautifully with appalling brutality, as the reader wonders whether these characters will preserve their empathy and sensitivity or themselves become brutalised.

Although teetering into melodrama at its finale, Daniel Clay's debut novel is remarkably controlled and disciplined as it depicts those who spiral out of control. The bald, matter-of-fact refrains, which provide the refreshing humour and perspicacity, also create its acute pathos, as Broken remains trapped in his trauma. Yearning and nostalgia pervade the narrative, as he craves a time when he was well: "I want to go back to before", to "be a child, be happy, be free".

The novel asks, "how and why", through his parents' agonised search for causes and cures, in such depth that Clay succeeds in inciting pity even for a murderer. As he probes what makes people break down, Clay's triumph is in exploring the kindness and love that might heal and restore – and what it is to feel fully alive.