MAY CONTAIN NUTS, by John O'Farrell, ISBN 038560687

spoiler warning...

Alice Chaplin, former personal assistant, and now home-maker, suffers from the immense responsibility which comes with parenthood. As her late night bubblewrap-popping addiction demonstrates, she feels the umbilical cord was cut far too soon, although she can admit to admiring other women who were willing to "go wireless" immediately. How could her family ever manage without her?

She is not alone in her endeavours. Alice and her peers are outrightly competitive and keep benchmarking their methods - some more radical than others - under the pretence of an innocent e-mail or rendezvous. The book's opening pages see our protagonist ironing out the final details of her home-grown traffic control measure construed from an old broom handle, tatty school trousers and a Tony Blair face mask. Alice reasons that reckless drivers will surely slow down if they see a little boy peeking out between parked cars. As he does with this scarecrow for speedy London commuters, Mr O'Farrell rarely lets his shock factor slacken. In the meantime, he slowly feeds his reader with information about the nature of Alice's genuine anxiety, which exhibits itself as incessant smothering.

Her self-actualised husband, David, rarely discourages her methods, as they feel the need to retain a united front around their children... that is what the self-help book recommended anyway. While being far from interchangeable, each parent and their peers set out with a similar priority - their eldest daughter's admission to the prestigious Chelsea College, whatever it takes. The sharp comparison between Battersea public school and this private college sheds some insight on the author's ideas on formal education, despite how strongly he objects to this critique in the final author's note. Here, the author writes that although he does not condemn the choice of private school, the text's morale is to act in the child's interest, not one's own.

Indeed, the incessantly humorous story offers a new definition of the notion of living through the well-being of one's children. Although situations are strummed up in a purely natural and accidental manner, Mr O'Farrell's characters choose extraordinary paths within an everyday context. The non-obvious satirical style allows the author some liberty with realism and yet still makes you feel like you can be, are, or have had coffee with parents like these.

Alice Chaplin's environment is clearly not timeless and this works in favour of the book. Mr O'Farrell discusses the fears suffered by parents raising children in this era and not any other. While fractional equations have always been a favourite brow creaser, today's parents must also face the internet, racial bullying and obesity. Undoubtedly, readers will particularly enjoy the fresh 2006 feel this book offers - references are made to McDonald's, the Microsoft Licence Agreement, driving accident statements, text messaging (one boy writes "9 - CUL8R" in answer to the question "What is the square root of 81?" during an exam) as well as Beyoncé and Kylie Minogue. Apart from a variety of comedic situations, these zeitgeist one-liners offer their fair share of laughs during the course of the book, slapping you hard in the face when you least expect it.

This review appeared in the Times of Malta in October 2006.

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