The Boys, or, Waiting for the Electrician's Daughter is John Terpstra's memoir of his wife's three brothers, Neil, Paul and Eric, all of whom lived with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and died in the same year, at the ages of 19, 20 and 24; in particular, it is a memoir of the last year of their lives, when Terpstra and his wife moved in with her parents to help with the increasingly intensive physical care required by the brothers.
Terpstra tells the story in fragments (213 altogether), some a few paragraphs long, some a single sentence, and intersperses family history, anecdote, theological reflection, some pieces of writing by the boys themselves, and poems written by himself and by his wife Mary Ann, the electrician's daughter of the title.
It is an affecting story of an ordinary family coping with extraordinary circumstances, of three working-class young men who seem to have been brave and funny and imaginative. Particularly when Terpstra concentrates on the moment-by-moment details of the last months of their lives, it is vivid and moving.
Nevertheless, I put the book down with a sense that the core of the experience had been missed. Terpstra is better known as a poet, and The Boys never quite manages to move beyond the meditative register of lyric poetry. This register is fine for some emotions. It is not very good at communicating the extreme feelings that inevitably accompany serious disability âe" the occasional despair, the murderous rage, the weird stark joy and triumph âe" or the almost surreal and sometimes darkly hilarious nature of a life built around illness.
There is an odd lack of particularity in The Boys. Though Terpstra correctly insists that Neil, Paul and Eric have to be seen as intensely individual, as specific and distinct human beings, their individuality actually doesn't come through very clearly, to the extent that I sometimes forgot which one was Neil and which one was Eric. And Terpstra's language throughout is strangely slack, falling too frequently into incidental clichÃ©.
All of this is, perhaps, understandable as a kind of attempt at courtesy. Terpstra is writing about a situation to which he was close only for a short time, decades ago. He mentions his fear of trespassing on the brothers' privacy. Not only the brothers, but his wife's parents, are dead now, and cannot speak for themselves. It is easy to see that Terpstra might have felt constrained, unwilling to project upon them emotions that might be his own invention, thoughts they would not have had. It is easy to see why he cannot ever say anything even slightly bad about the boys, though if they were as human as the rest of us, they were surely also flawed and sometimes unlikeable.
But this has left the book, at least for me, with a vague sense of emptiness at the centre. I should be honest here âe" I have a daughter with a severe disability. It is very different from the illness that Neil, Paul and Eric lived with and died with, but from my own family and others I have learned, if I have learned anything, that there is no decorum in disability. Terpstra himself says this as well âe" it's just that he says it in language that is always decorous, always thoughtful and lyrical and somehow cautious.
It is hard to know which is the greater danger, risking the misrepresentation of a situation with which he was only briefly intimate, or maintaining this caution and never quite making a full imaginative engagement with the boys' lives.
I have no hesitation in recommending that people read The Boys. It is sensitive and humane and intelligent, and stories like these need to be told, in whatever manner. In the end, though, it will probably not be a book that I return to very often; not one that finally gripped me, or left a strong impression in my mind, as much as I wish that it had.âe"Maggie Helwig
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