There have been a number of recent-ish novels with non-neurotypical main characters, but I don’t think you will have read one quite like this before...
The plot centres around three people who inhabit, separately, the same London house. On the top floor, Karen, a doctor working on what she hopes will be ground-breaking research into how people with autism can lead fulfilling and productive lives. On the ground floor, Tam, a policeman, previously injured in the line of duty, who now finds there is no place for him in a modern police force, or at least no place he wants to inhabit. And the man on the middle floor: Nick.
It’s an interesting, unsettling read with some unusual and often challenging themes. We get inside the head of Nick, a troubled young man with Asperger’s, and it’s not a comfortable place to be.
Karen is obsessed by her work and able to think of little else; she’s incapable of remembering to perform basic functions of everyday life (putting petrol in her car, picking up her children at an agreed time.) Separated from her husband and children, the visits from the children feel like an imposition and she counts the minutes till they leave and she can get back to work. Since Karen seems to have always been pretty much like this, why she chose to have three children in the first place is a mystery. She’s certainly an appalling mother and a disaster for her children, but I do wonder if as a woman, she’s judged more harshly for her behaviour and attitude than a man would be.
Karen herself seems somewhat disconnected from the usual emotions and it makes a kind of sense that she’s chosen to work in the field of autism.
The blokey Tam, dealing with the loss of his career through booze and sex, is the most obviously “normal” and to me, at least initially, perhaps the least interesting of the three. However Tam definitely goes on a journey over the course of the story and by the end is, if not a different person, one who has broadened his horizons and outlook.
And then... there’s Nick. His sections of the story are written in first person, and it’s hard reading at times. Life is a struggle for Nick; not only because of his Asperger’s, but there is clearly something dark in his family history , particularly in his relationship with his grandfather. He is a very troubled and damaged young man, failed by those around him and beset by feelings he cannot understand or deal with about sexuality, violence and death. He clings to his routines and when these are disrupted, all hell breaks loose - almost literally.
The Man on the Middle Floor is a very well written and thought provoking debut. The author clearly has a lot to say on certain subjects and does so in a very effective way. Some dreadful things happen in this book (it’s very dark and disturbing at times) and it’s clear there can be no easy resolutions for the characters - Nick, in particular - but the ending is quite satisfying, though can feel a little heavy on the exposition at times as the author fills in the gaps. There’s a great courtroom scene too.
While reading I wasn’t always sure that I liked the book - like I said, it’s hard reading at times in terms of the subject matter - but I was always interested and challenged.
I was intrigued to learn more about the author after finishing the book, and found this interesting post on her website in which she discusses the book and some of the reactions to it - worth checking out.
Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review!