Someone gave me The Most Beautiful Thing as a present a couple of years ago and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. I’m not sure what put me off picking it up to read, but the cover definitely played a part. It’s in a matt-laminate white with the lettering in rainbow-coloured capital letters. It reminded me of a book I was given at Sunday school once for good behaviour. (The less said about that the better!)
So finally I took the plunge and read it – and I am so glad I did. It tells the story of 14-year-old Joe who is on his way to Amsterdam to stay with his aunt Nel. He alludes to difficulties at home and as his story unfolds, we understand that his Dutch mother has mental-health problems and his father is struggling to look after her. For Joe, his aunt Nel is a breath of fresh air. She has issues of her own to deal with: two ‘unsuitable’ boyfriends, an impoverished career as an artist, as well as mood swings. But what we see develop between the two main characters is a very strong bond and this is my favourite thing about the novel. Nel is happy to adapt to her nephew, who doesn’t say very much, is obsessed with birds and meteorology and likes to have a daily routine laid out for him. At the same time, Nel’s lifestyle is completely chaotic, yet Joe manages to find a place for himself in it, one where he feels secure. The pair couldn’t be more different, but they connect.
The novel is divided into two halves. The second half deals with an older Joe who, now 29, revisits his aunt in Amsterdam. Although he has succeeded with a career in meteorology, Joe is struggling both romantically and with work relationships. Nel tells Joe about her own upbringing, which give the reader a deeper insight and understanding of why the family appeared to be so dysfunctional in the first half of the novel. For example, when the young Joe pays a visit to his Dutch grandparents, their behaviour is so startling, yet believable at the same time. In fact all of the characters in the book seems very real, perhaps because they are all flawed in some way.
Fiona Robyn’s main strength is her ability to tell the story through Joe’s eyes and to get into the head of both a 14-year-old boy and a young man. We see the world as he does and we start to wonder if perhaps Joe has Aspergers or mild autism. He finds it difficult to communicate in a ‘normal’ world and gets comfort from familiar objects and people. The story meanders gently and there are a few twists, which help to pick up the pace a little at the end.
This is a gentle and comforting read. It’s the sort of novel I’d go back to once more in a few years’ time and one that I would definitely encourage my teenage children to read.