Rating: B/ This autobiographical novel by actress Meg Tilly (yes, that Meg Tilly, of Agnes of God and The Big Chill) is a tough pill to swallow. I actually tried unsuccessfully to complete it like four or five times before finally getting all the way through. It’s not a bad book, and certainly a well-written one (obviously something had me coming back, probably the main character’s voice) but the level of child abuse made it almost unreadable for me. The fact that some of this, if not most of it, had actually happened in some form made it even more stomach-turning.
Anna is a pretty regular kid whose life takes a sharp turn into hell when her mother marries Richard, a perverted and physically abusive loser who proceeds to treat Anna and her siblings like shit. Mom turns a blind eye to the abuse and even seems to participate in it to some extent, and when Anna’s sister Susan hits puberty and Richard begins to rape her her mother presents Susan with some birth control pills, so, you know, she won’t get pregnant when she’s being screwed by her stepdad. What a mom! The family lives kind of a nomadic life, marked by neglect, and they move from place to place so social workers can’t take the kids away. It’s kind of like a more graphic The Glass Castle, but I think the parents in this are possibly even worse than Jeannette Walls’ parents (if that’s even possible.)
This is the kind of story that you feel in your gut, because as bad as things get you just know they’re going to get worse, and then they do. The novel is told through Anna’s innocent eyes, from the ages of four to about twelve, and for the most part I think her voice is fairly believable. I noticed a few points when her vocabulary was a little too precocious for a very young child, and I think at age four her voice would be less focused, more flighty and erratic. Anyway, the grown-ups in this book need to be hung up by their toes and flogged. They’re the worst! Pedophiles, assholes, and losers, every one, with very few exceptions.
I was glad they didn’t try to make Anna’s mom out to be a victim, as I feared they would, because in my opinion women who stay knowingly with men who rape their children (with the exception of women who are literally afraid for their life) are just as bad as the pedophiles. I guess Richard isn’t exactly a pedophile; he targets Susan after she hits puberty (though he involves prepubescent Anna in the abuse,) which would make him more of a hebephile, but tomato, to-mah-to, as far as I’m concerned. He also has a penchant for jerking off while wearing ladies undergarments, which is actually one of the lesser of his perversions, and wouldn’t be that bad on it’s own, but combined with the constant abuse with his children and step-children make him even stranger and creepier somehow.
I’ll say this once- you’ll need a pretty strong stomach to go into Singing Songs without becoming absolutely overwhelmed by the pedophilia, incest, all-around depraved behavior, etc. The title makes it sound like it’s kind of a chipper book, when in fact, it’s the opposite. The chapters are short, and the voice of the heroine appealing, but the subject matter itself is nothing less than harrowing. I liked all of it until the ending, which I found bizarre and inconclusive, I actually did a double-take to see if some of the pages had been ripped out or something. The end left lots of unanswered questions and left me kind of cold. If you like dark stories that are grounded in reality (rather than those that exist only to make you sick), this is the book for you.
The sweetness and genuineness of the narrative voice made the story a bit more palatable, but not much. Although the book was hard to read due to it’s frank depiction of the sexual and physical abuse of children, I will be on the lookout for more of the author’s books. I appreciate her writing style and the fact that she actually went through some of this shit and is exorcising her demons onto the page.
If it wasn’t based on a true story I probably would have found her descriptions of abuse a bit too gratuitously lurid. But the fact that some of it really happened puts an increasingly sad, somber spin on the book. So, Singing Songs is definitely not a beach read and I probably won’t read it again but it’s undeniably well-done. Meg Tilly paints a unsentimental portrait of a indomitable little girl and her wildly dysfunctional family, and makes us care about her, not only because she’s a child and children are to be loved and protected, but as a person too. She’ll break your heart without even knowing it, because her voice is as matter-of-fact as they come. Hard to recommend, but disturbingly well-written, Singing Songs is a worthwhile experience but one you are unlikely to want to repeat.