‘More tragedy than comedy, The Tragi-comic tale of Christian de Palma, Man of Letters, by Philip Newey, could well fit the cliché, ‘If it weren’t so tragic, it would be funny’. This compelling novel, drawing the reader into the workings of Christian’s confused mind, leaves its mark long after one reaches its conclusion.
From the deceptive lofty title, Man of Letters—a pun on Christian’s overriding obsession—to the almost absurd, childish resolution of the final crisis, Philip Newey skilfully paints a picture of an increasingly disturbed mind, in a natural progression from childhood innocence battling dysfunctional forces, to harmless, but ‘inappropriate’ adult behaviour, to the dramatic denouement.
Subtle detail adds colour to this complex character: Christian does not smoke, drink or use drugs; he is, according to one of the students, both ‘Whacko and polite’ (p.117). He is a flawed character, often misunderstood, preyed upon, frustrated, baffling, impotent against a society that tries to brand him a monster. The reader is simultaneously repulsed, sympathetic to his plight and at times amused by situations created by his lack of awareness.
‘You don’t like me,’ he challenges the learning adviser who has tried to help.
‘...why do you think that might be?’
‘It’s because I’m smarter than you,’ Christian asserts (p.211).
Intelligent, but damaged, he sinks into the abyss, while well-meaning individuals flounder in their attempts to help. These characters’ stories are skilfully interwoven with Christian’s story, ultimately one that highlights the inadequacy of a system struggling to address such problems.
Philip Newey’s Christian de Palma, Man of Letters is intriguing and thought-provoking, giving readers an understanding of the complex issues of mental illness in a gripping, engaging novel.’
Maria Bianco, 2016.