Prove your humanity

By – Nyambura Mutanyi

Family is the one thing many of us feel we can depend wholly on. What happens, then, when that family falls apart at the seams and is revealed to be a world away from what we think it to be? I Know This Much Is True tackles the breakdown of a family and its redemption over the lifetimes of three generations of a family. Spanning the twentieth century, it investigates the themes of love, loss and belonging in a poignant and unforgettable way.

An American novel at its best, it transcends the country with distinctly human themes. In Dominick Birdsey, our hero (and sometimes anti-hero), Lamb presents a memorable character who wrestles with the issues that are particular to him and cause him anguish. A twin brother who has spent a significant portion of his life in mental institutions puts a pall on all his interactions despite his best intentions. In so many ways, Dominick’s life presents the truism in the assertion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But this book is not all gloom and doom. The brother, Thomas, is a revelation. With his insights into what it means to be human, he educates Dominick in a way that only he can. And what an education-the reader is swept up in the self-discovery which floods over Dominick as the book progresses. Life in all its glory and sadness is investigated with a lot of colour.

Dominick, when we meet him, is like a man one knows and thinks of fondly. His mother is well on her way to the grave and his diabetic stepfather is alienated from his sons. Lamb captures the isolation so common to those who have close relatives who are mentally ill; he explores the various feelings of ambivalence that are singular to that experience. This is not cancer or diabetes-it is a displacement of the person one knows and loves. Thomas tugs at the reader’s heartstrings but also grates in a way that causes one to sympathise with some of Dominick’s actions. The latter isn’t a bad man but Thomas doesn’t make life easy.

As Dominick, the book’s narrator, recounts the tales of their lives and his brother’s descent into insanity; one gets a glimpse of his life. Closed off from the world, he is the quintessential Tough Guy-all grit, no softness. This quality of his is beautifully built up by Lamb and put in relief as he starts to delve into his past and all the experiences that make him and his family what they are. Constant flashbacks to his childhood provide the reader with insight into what growing up in his peculiar circumstances meant for him but even more for his brother.

This story, at a hefty 897 pages, is practically impossible to put down. I know; I tried and failed. The hours of sleep lost are well worth it. Lamb flits from the 1990 America to 1900 Italy and back as he weaves the illustrious tale of Dominick’s ancestors and the family he grew up in. This he does with deft skill, interspersing the tale with the telling revelations of the grandfather after whom he is named. A difficult man, he gives the grandson he did not live to meet an inheritance that frees him from his life as presently constituted.

This story can quite honestly be said to tear out the reader’s heart and put it back in a new way. Some of life’s hardest questions are dealt with in the musings and experiences of the characters in the book. It takes these issues on with kindness and a sensitivity that is gripping. Race, equality, war and the decline of family as seen in Dominick’s life take on a new and interesting meaning. He discovers things about himself that put his life and the existence of his family in perspective.

The surprises that hit the reader may sometimes beggar belief but they don’t make them any less interesting. What I found monumental was how Dominick’s act of making peace with himself, his past and his family was intensely liberating. Lamb doesn’t whitewash the battle that goes on in the heart, mind and life of our protagonist but rather presents a man who, freed from lifelong clutches of anger and hurt, triumphs in a wonderful way. Humanity as played out on the scale of this one man’s life makes for a gripping read.