Escaping Barcelona (Mad Days of Me #1)Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to Henry Martin’s book following a discussion of literary fiction in the modern day. I mentioned the cult novel Trainspotting and pointed out that difficulties with the heavy Scottish dialect did not override the fact that it was totally realistic in its handling of drug addiction. Escaping Barcelona also has a form of gritty realism dealing as it does with uncomfortable and unpleasant issues like statelessness, homelessness, exploitation and homosexual rape. It is however a much more approachable book.

The quality of the writing here is excellent and it is not written in dialect or the vernacular which makes it easier for the general reader to get into. To me, the language of evocation and description is vital. One of my favourite poets, for example, is the war poet Wilfred Owen because he brings a talent for visual description to things we don’t consider poetic subjects. In this way Owen gives the horror of war a striking and vivid reality. Henry Martin, for me, achieves something similar on a smaller scale in Escaping Barcelona from the trilogy Mad Days of Me.

In an era where increasingly readers have little time for description, characterization or exposition, he allows us more than just a glimpse of his protagonist’s world. The author is not just content with what his character does and what happens to him; you feel Rudy’s initial sense of awe and excitement on arriving in Barcelona, you smell, taste and see his surroundings. Later the same skills are applied to his physical deterioration, how the fabric of his unwashed socks becomes embedded in the skin of his feet for instance.

Rudy starts out, as many young people do, by feeling trapped at home. He longs for freedom and adventure and leaves the safety and security of his home to seek that freedom on the road. Ironically his search leads to virtual imprisonment in a world where everything is reduced to the absolute basics of survival and where it is hard to trust anybody. His interactions with young women on holiday draw attention to this irony. They too seek freedom and adventure through travel, but unlike Rudy they have not been victimized; they have not lost the physical means of escape and they are still in control of their own destinies. He envies them and he fears for them too. His eventual escape is almost a very final escape, the significance of which was not lost on me.

The novel Escaping Barcelona deals with issues on the underbelly of society; issues of criminality, exploitation of the weak, powerlessness, hopelessness and the all too convenient invisibility of the poor and the homeless. Its premise that this can happen to anybody young, innocent and trusting is sadly built on truth. Your hopes rise and are dashed along with the young protagonist, you see life at its most fundamental, learning survival skills and dealing with frustration and fear along the way.

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Grief is grief whether we are allowed to feel it or not; it is intense whether a sexual relationship exists or not; it is real whether the relationship is open and sanctioned by marriage, blood ties or other formality or whether it is kept hidden for personal or professional reasons.

I was moved to buy and read Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS' Wildfire Days by a poem that Nancy Bevilaqua had shared on Goodreads. The poem made me cry which is unusual. I am often moved to tears by sad films and classical music, but rarely by poetry. Initially I thought I was going to buy a poetry anthology because I wanted to read more by this poet. When I read the description I realised I was buying a memoir.

Memoir and biography are genres I dip into occasionally so I thought “What the hey! Let’s give it a try!” It was only sleepiness that prevented me reading the whole thing in one sitting. It was not so much the short length as the power of the story and the depth of skill in Nancy Bevilaqua’s prose. It was almost like being her- certainly like being with her-as she performed the daily tasks of looking after David who was an AIDs sufferer. The first half of her book held me wrapt, the second half had me curious to learn more and share her journey of discovery into David’s background.

The theme of disenfranchised grief is one that resonates with me personally. The total isolation, lack of understanding of others and difficulty of sharing with those closest to you is therefore a familiar theme. This is intense and intimate writing about a personal loss that is not for those who are easily upset. Nevertheless there is a brutal honesty in this story that will strike a chord with anyone who has a heart and the reality of the AIDs epidemic before drug treatments controlled symptoms and prolonged life is certainly something I well remember.

Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS' Wildfire Days is a book that I will hold in my heart for some time to come and that I can heartily recommend to anyone interested in this period of history or tragic personal memoirs that are beautifully stated.