A book review for The Weekend Australian, published on July 28. The full review appears below.
The eating disorder anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate of any mental illness: up to 20 per cent in the absence of treatment.
I didn’t know this until I read The Boy Who Loved Apples, in which first-time author Amanda Webster takes on twin challenges: to write a confessional account of the most difficult time of her life and to educate readers about the complexities of an illness few understand intimately, especially as it applies to boys. She succeeds on both counts.
The events Webster describes took place in 2003, when the eldest of her three children, Riche, was 11. The story is told through the rear-view mirror: in past tense and in a matter-of-fact tone that has the (perhaps unintended) side effect of unnerving the reader, especially in dramatic moments, of which there are many. It’s as if Webster, the narrator, is observing someone else live out her interactions, her mistakes, her omissions. This narrative device works well.
The psychological reality of living with anorexia is shocking: the battle of the book’s subtitle is no overstatement. Webster describes in painful detail the relentless, punishing routine of feeding Riche protein shakes – practically his only source of nourishment for almost a year – five times a day, while responding to his tired series of calorie-conscious questions. “This won’t make me fat, will it?” asks a boy who weighs a desperately unhealthy 25kg.
Recrimination is a consistent theme throughout this book, towards Webster’s husband, Kevin, a frequent-flying investment banker who is rarely at home during the week, and the author herself, a self-confessed “corporate wife”. It does help that Kevin is a high-income earner, as the family eventually spends more than $2000 a week to manage Riche’s illness.
Soon after she moves from Mullumbimby in northern NSW to Brisbane to begin Riche’s treatment, Webster ransacks the bookshops for anything on eating disorders. She notes wryly that such books are shelved alongside sex guides; her own love life has been no great shakes since Riche’s diagnosis. The books solidify her belief that her son’s illness was brought on by parenting mistakes. (She’s wrong, and eventually learns that blame benefits no one.)
Much of the narrative concerns interactions between the author and her son, though there’s also a recurring cast of doctors, psychiatrists, dieticians and support staff, as well as her two younger children and husband. This one-on-one dynamic works in favour of the story, as it highlights the truly consuming nature of the illness:
“It was trench warfare, an endless battle with no tea breaks. If I’d thought about it before, I would have assumed anorexia popped up at mealtimes – a fight over food, and then on with the day. I didn’t realise the illness controlled every waking moment, or that it affected every aspect of life.”
To complicate matters, it becomes clear that throughout those long, lonely months in Brisbane, the author herself is fraught with depression, anxiety and, later, post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the “skull-shattering tedium” that envelopes her life and the life of her son.
Alcohol becomes a crutch. She fights on the phone with Kevin, whose work keeps him in Sydney, and longs for the company of her other, attention-starved children.
Webster never normalises Riche’s behaviour: there is nothing normal about an 11-year-old attempting suicide after coming into contact with a tiny puddle of car oil (“It’s making me fat. Look how fat my arm is.”) or scraping the skin from his hands after an iced bun was eaten in the house (“I had to use my nails. I’m fat.”). Webster shifts between helpless fury towards his irrational, starved-brain behaviour and compassionate self-reminders that it’s the illness at fault.
That the Websters survived that terrible year is remarkable, as is the frank and humane way in which the author frames the grim realities of their situation. This is an important story delivered with a fantastic eye for detail. It is, ultimately, one focused on love and sacrifice at any cost. And thankfully there is a happy – and healthy – ending.
The Boy Who Loved Apples: A Mother’s Battle with Her Son’s Anorexia
By Amanda Webster
Text Publishing, 291pp, $32.99