The heroine of this story is Johnnie, the adolescent sister of three older brothers: an autistic dreamer, a gifted and fey musician, a brilliant young geologist. When the latter two fall victim to a wasting disease that drains them of strength and will, Johnnie’s role changes from adoring sibling to family lynchpin, supporting her struggling mother, resisting her manipulative father, and strenuously retaining faith in the ability of all of her brothers to cope and flourish.
Anderson practises a real life commitment to people facing social and mental suffering, and this highly-informed perspective is evident on every page; although some of the reports of futile medical encounters seemed caricatural, I found myself touching wood that I lack first-hand evidence to confirm this. She also writes densely and rhapsodically, but with intriguing clarity, about the material details of an afflicted family life. This includes not just distressing symptoms and the paraphernalia of attempted remedies, but the life-embracing and intertwined preoccupations of people fascinated by music, geology, flora, fauna and phenomena of all kinds.
The result is a book which combines descriptive complexity with narrative vigour, a bleak catalogue of human frailty with a celebration of reasons for persevering in the face of catastrophe.