Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Gypsy Boy

While working on a PhD you really don't get all that much time to yourself. When you're not working you're reading papers, or doing housework, or just collapsing in front of the tv out of exhaustion when you can't concentrate on a single thing any more. So when I knew I'd be taking this 4day heaven sent weekend which involves a 3 hour train ride I thought fucking brilliant, I get to bring a couple of books with me. So at seven o'clock in the morning I sat on the train and opened Gypsy Boy by Mickey Walsh.

At 6pm that evening I finished reading the last page. And I loved it.

I'm not going to lie, it's a tough book to read. It's not a lighthearted faff book and sometimes I had to take a five minute break and imagine myself plucking in to the little boy between the pages and saving him. But it was powerful and it was amazing, and I am happy to have read it.

The only problem I have with it, in fact, is with the criticism of the book itself. While on Amazon it got a lot of 5star reviews it also got a lot of 1-2star ones, saying it perpetuated stereotypes of Romany Gypsies thereby giving credence to people who are prejudiced against them. Also it contains a lot of abuse, which doesn't make for an enjoyable experience. I think that criticism is bullshit.

This is not a fiction by some white dude that knows nothing of gypsies and just paints them with this terrible brush. This is a true story about this man's childhood, is he supposed to just shut up about what happened to him because some people might use his story as an excuse to be prejudiced? There are some stereotypes about gypsies that he dispells. there are others that he confirms as being part of their culture while explaining why they may have come to be. I know it is in vogue right now to harp on how muslim men mistreat women while being overly PC about gypsies, but it's just as bullshit to ignore the precedent for these stereotypes as it is to automatically assume that ALL members of a community exactly fit that stereotype (whether we're talking about muslims or gypsies). This man's story is all about him no longer being able to keep secrets and needing to tell his story, I find it extremely pigheaded for anyone to say that he should have kept it to himself for fear of making a some PC-obsessives a little uncomfortable.

One of the main stereotypes that he confirms is the cultural idea that it's "us against the world", never trust the outsider. What was made evident is that it becomes a vicious cycle, and it is something that strongly reminded me of a documentary of the Westboro Baptist children.

Growing up in an isolated community gives children little initial contact with outsiders, but it is quite evident from their parents ways that they believe the outsiders are "wrong" or "untrustworthy" or "out to get us". Other children, in turn, are horrible to any child that is different, and tease them or pick on them for it, confirming to the child that they belong to a seperate world. This causes the community to band even tighter together, giving them a sense of family and society that no one not from such a community could ever fathom. These children grow up to be adults and continue to antagonise those outsiders, whether by not having moral qualms about conning them or stealing from them or by picketing their funerals. This causes the outsider adults to be more disgusted by them and angry with them, not wanting their own children to have anything to do with them, and the cycle continues. Both sides remain ignorant of the other, and neither can gain (nor would want to gain) any good that the other side can offer them. It is something tragic to watch unfold, not something that makes you more hateful towards gypsies.

So the really big question is why did I like it? It was an extremely heavy book, loaded with abuse, and yet I am so glad I read it. Why? Do I like reading about abuse? Of course not. The book made me feel like it was written for therapeutic reasons, and that  it was a story that needed to be told. It made me feel like I was bearing witness to his struggles and his triumph, like I was helping him stop needing to hide those secrets that were poisoning him. If my trying to put it into words sounds totally corny I apologize, but I cannot state it any better than that.

I suppose Stephen Fry summed it up in the best possible way

"It is a revelation. Moving, terrifying, funny and brilliant. I shall never forget it."

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