52 Good Books

Book Review 42 – Behind the Mask is Nothing by Judy Birbeck

A few weeks ago Mslexia (a magazine for women who write) had a book giveaway which yours truly won. Lucky me! Shortly after, my very own copy of Behind the Mask is Nothing by Judy Birbeck had winged it’s its way to me. I was thrilled! Who doesn’t love a freebie!

Well freebie or not I have to say I love, love, loved this book! In fact I think this may be one of my favourite books since I started the 52 week challenge. And 42 weeks in, that is quite an accolade.

That said, it wasn’t love at first sight. This book was a slow burner. To begin with, the story wasn’t grabbing me. It felt like it was jumping around too much and the language was too flowery. I just couldn’t get a handle on it. But a few short chapters in as I began to make sense of the storylines, everything began to flow beautifully. Birbeck’s metaphors had a wonderful cadence to them and I began to draw parallels with Ali Smith’s poetic yet humorous style. And once I noticed this, I was hooked.

Behind the Mask is Nothing tells the story of Stef who is seeking a way of repairing her marriage. She attends a help group set in a remote closed off community that live on an estate. Well alright, they’re a cult, but they don’t call themselves that. ‘There’s no deprivation of food, sleep or contact with family members,’ they keep repeating. Only there is.

Gradually as Stef gets sucked in, leaving her husband behind, the group leader starts to manipulate her into cutting off family ties. Worse still individuals are ritually humilated in the name of self improvement and pretty much everyone is made to believe they must have been abused in their youth. But Stef’s desperation to belong and the genuine bonds she shares with individual group members make it difficult to see the wood for the trees. With this level of emotional manipulation can Stef escape? Can anyone?

Stef’s story is interspersed with that of her grandmother Hilda, who is writing her memoirs of growing up in Nazi Germany. Hilda’s stories were excruciating. I braced myself to read each one as she descended into gruesome tales of ordinary people following the edicts of the Nazi’s. Her shame all these years later at how she was brainwashed and delighted in the misery of others was horrifying and yet relatable. As Hilda’s story progresses she reveals the betrayal that she still hasn’t forgiven herself for. Birbeck hits the nail on the head here. Despite the fact that circumstances might play their part in how we behave, sometimes the hardest thing to do is live with your own fallibility.

Birbeck’s stunning portrayal of these women and their vulnerability is  wonderfully told. If you’re a fan of literary fiction and a sucker for a beautiful metaphor then this is the book you’ve been waiting for.

Next week I’ll be reading the brilliant Matt Haig’s memoir on mental health. Reasons to Stay Alive, is on the blog next Monday, come back and find out what it’s all about.

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