My rating: 5/5 stars ⭐️
Carolyn Parkhurst’s new novel, Harmony, is an enthralling peek at a family struggling to understand their child and sacrificing everything to help her exist peaceably in a world that seems unable to understand or accept her.
From the outside, the Hammonds are your typical American family: two loving parents and two intelligent, fun-loving girls. Iris is 11. She is mature, spunky, and lives her life wanting to be the “good girl” who pleases others. She loves her sister, but is slightly resentful of the focus that Tilly demands daily. Matilda (or Tilly) is 13. She is a genius – literally. Her IQ is off the charts. She loves statues, games, and her family. She is also the cause of the storm clouds that hover over their near-perfect family unit. Tilly has been diagnosed with PDD-NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified) which comes with a daunting set of gifts and challenges. Some are merely distasteful and embarrassing to her family (can you IMAGINE your child compulsively licking every surface in your local McDonalds?) and others are downright dangerous (like attempting to leap from a moving vehicle after an argument with a teacher). Her parents have tried every school they can think of, every doctor they can, every behavioural therapy that is offered – to no avail. They are caught in a labyrinth of options, all of which seem useless when it comes to aiding their brilliant, but troubled, child. When Tilly is discharged forcibly from the last school in their area, their options come to a grinding halt.
Enter Scott Bean, “educator” – more specifically a self-proclaimed behaviouralist and child expert. After spending a couple of years under his care, the family decides to give up nearly all of their worldly possessions to help Scott set up and run Camp Harmony, a family therapy haven in the isolated American woods. They are relying on the desperate hope that Scott Bean is the answer to their prayers and are prepared to trust him, no matter what. However, over time it appears that Mr. Bean (sorry, I had to do it at least once! I’m done now) is not quite what he seems. Now you’re saying – wait, what?? Is this another cult story? Believe me as I offer you a resounding NO to that question. This book is SO much more than that.
The story is told in three shifting narratives – that of Iris, Alexandra (the mother), and Tilly. Recently I’ve had my troubles with book structures like this since a very intuitive fellow book club member pointed out that we’ve been seeing more and more of these lately. And like, what is wrong with a main character just telling a story?? In this book, however, the author employs some fairly ingenius devices that make these multiple perspectives imperative to creating tension and suspense, as well as providing the reader a more well-rounded frame of reference for understanding the family’s current predicament.
The most inspired aspect of these narratives? They all represent different points in the story’s timeline. Iris is the present, what is happening at Camp Harmony on a day-to-day basis? Alexandra is the past, how did the family get to this point? Tilly is the future, the most captivating of the three in my mind as you are concentrating on every little word as if they might give you a clue as to where the novel is headed. BRILLIANT!! Tilly’s parts are down-right cryptic and sprinkled in short bursts throughout the novel. Of course, seeing as her mind works differently from the other narrators, her insights are not fully based in reality and seem like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together until the very end.
It may be easy to judge the Hammonds at first – call them crazy, call them gullible – because WHO in their right mind sells their home and possessions just to follow some guy out to the woods when he could be a crazy nutbag? Don’t drink the Kool Aid, am I right? However, Parkhurst very convincingly outlines how the family ran through every possible solution they could think of until they were well and truly out of options that seemed viable to them. Yes, it’s drastic, but herein lay the essential questions of the book. The questions that smolder unguarded in the unconscious mind of every devoted parent:
What wouldn’t you do for the health and welfare of your child?
How far would you be willing to go when it seems as if the rest of the world has given up?
Would you sacrifice everything for the child you love with your whole heart?
These are the questions that drive the Hammonds to seek refuge at Camp Harmony. For once, someone accepts them – and Tilly. For once, someone is bringing them the proverbial light at the end of a long and dark tunnel. It is love and guilt that binds them to Scott Bean and the camp – desperate love for their children and heart-wrenching guilt that they are failing miserably as parents. The demise of the camp is apparent from the start. Have you ever seen a successful utopia? But of course it is the children who are witness to the first cracks in the perfect picture that Scott has painted for the three families helping him run the camp. He is charismatic, but sporadically shows a dark, violent temper. He is intuitive and hard working, but disturbingly manipulative. The reader will wrestle with many questions about him and the camp: Who is he, really? What is his motivation and what does he want? Is anyone inherently good or bad? Can an experience be both valuable and detrimental? To what extent does one outweigh the other?
I am highly recommending this novel for its simple storyline and complex subject matter. It is beautifully written, in turns humourous and heart-breaking. The narrators are engaging (and I cannot remember the last time I read a point-of-view written in the second person in a novel – very effective here, she was speaking to my soul and I cannot get her out of my head) and I couldn’t stop turning pages until I finally came to the heart-dropping ending. But don’t worry – nothing about this novel is depressing or bleak. It is ultimately uplifting, hopeful, and provocative. LOTS of room for discussion here (nudge, nudge, book clubs, wink, wink).