Rhik Samadder has written a remarkable book. What a lavishly talented writer he is, packing more hilarity and insight into a few sentences than many authors manage in an entire book. Those who are familiar with his journalism, and particularly his Guardian column reviewing kitchen gadgets, will know he has a talent for turning base metal into gold. We mistakenly assumed this was a fluke, a happy accident, that he should be so entertaining about such an unpromising subject. The reason that his piece on a device for cooking eggs went viral, however is that he is an astonishingly original writer, no matter what the topic. And we should all be grateful that he has now turned his attention to the serious matter of mental health.
It doesn’t seem quite right that a book so moving should also be so funny at the same time but this is the case with his memoir I Never Said I Loved You. Discussing it in evangelical tones with a similarly memoir-obsessed friend, she pointed out how rare it is for someone to write about their own life with the detachment to make it amusing, but also the closeness to make it affecting.
He describes how, on his 30th birthday in a sex hotel in Bangkok with his mother (you really will have to read it to get your head round this) he finally asked her about her family but because he didn’t like talking, he had a tendency to do it in bursts and go “on conversational raids”, conjuring up images of him in a burglar’s outfit, asking about his grandmother’s history of mental illness.
Throughout the book, he includes letters written to significant people in his life, beginning with his late father. Later, he says “My father and I didn’t talk, and that’s a familiar story. What is this gift men pass on to each other?” He raises serious questions about the semi-dysfunctional relationships between men but there is also a great deal of affection in his portrait of his father, not least the image of him on a cross trainer at the gym wearing a Panama hat, “the most Indiana Jones thing that has ever happened in Lewisham.”
Samadder also manages somehow, impossibly, to write a genuinely tender letter to a woman he has a one night stand with, demonstrating a concern for her far beyond the night they spend together.
He writes about the ways in which memory tries to bypass trauma and how he has attempted to address this in his own life. Whilst he may mock himself as a “cut-price Camus L’etranger”, his pain is heart-breaking and – as he quietly reflects –“if you carry no safety within you, then you are never really safe.”
He also writes about his adventures with the opposite sex with self-deprecating wit “Not to brag, but I’d lost my virginity to a girl who afterwards realised she was a lesbian, and wanted nothing more to do with men for the rest of her natural life.”
It can feel indecent, laughing so much whilst reading a memoir about depression but humour is Samadder’s Trojan horse and the means by which he smuggles in a genuinely hopeful message which many readers should find resonant. It is his eye for the absurd which saves him and which makes the book such a joy. Buy it for the men in your life for Christmas, like we plan to do, but make sure you also read it yourself – for the sheer life-enhancing pleasure of it.
What did you think? Leave your comments below, and find our December Book Club here.