Monday, January 26, 2015

Book Response: Karen Lynch's 'Good Cop, Bad Daughter'

I started Karen Lynch's 'Good Cop, Bad Daughter' one night in bed after my girls had fallen asleep, and by Chapter Two liked it so much I was annoyed that I was too tired to keep reading. I finished this engrossing story the next night, and I swear that I tell the truth when I reveal that as I read the last few sentences of this memoir, I burst into tears.

Karen's story starts during her tumultuous childhood, raised by a nice but distant father and a mother who cares for Karen- an only child- in a way that feels partly loving and secure, and partly ominous. With a child's sometimes disturbing intuition into the machinations of their own parents, Karen understood something at a visceral level even before it was apparent: her mother was highly unstable, with a mean streak. Karen matter of factly but clearly chooses telling details of her childhood that reveal the menacing environment she grew in, until in one final stroke, the truth is outed: her mother, in a first bipolar psychosis, presses her little girl's hand against a hot pot on the stove, burning her badly. I cried reading this, for the exact location in a life of when innocence was lost is not always so candidly recalled, and a mother purposefully hurting her child is a demarcation of the worst kind.

As Karen enters adolescence, her mother moves in with a man who becomes Karen's step-father by default. And for me, this was the the secret heart and true meaning of this life story. Karen builds the outer structure of her life in the telling of her mother's mental illness, her father's desertion and her entrance into police school, but it is the love story that runs through all these markers that most impacted me- a love story between a father figure and a little girl. What is particularly touching and interesting about this relationship is not just the love, but the human frailties of the man- he is not a hero, he is not even successful in his own life by any standards of society, as he is without much money at all, owns little to nothing, has no successful romantic relationships and doesn't 'save' Karen in an overwhelming, sweeping way.  And yet, because he loves Karen and makes the effort and room in his life to reach out to her, to help her and to shelter her, he changes her entire life. 

It is Karen's ability as a writer that made this revelation so profound when it does come, as she doesn't hurry this along. The slow build up of situations and realizations that grow in Karen grow also in us as we read along, which is why the ending, which she essentially devotes to him, is so emotionally powerful. 

I was totally engrossed ( as in, I won't hear you if you try to talk to me! ) as I read about Karen's experiences- twice- traveling overseas with her mentally ill mother who drinks herself into psychosis, and once Karen even ends up in a foreign orphanage! Karen's sketches of her experience in police school are interesting and at times hilarious, and she captures the portraits of the cadets and police in charge with precisely guided words that give the reader an immediate and clear idea of the person. I know next to nothing about police training and was interested in the progression of the cadets and the tricks of the trade, as well as the depth of camaraderie and support. 

Karen's experience being a female cadet during a time when women had just been granted permission to join the active police force is a testament to feminism, and I applaud her guts, smarts and perseverance through some rocky moments where she could have- and almost did, once- quit, but did not. 

Great storytelling with a beating heart. I loved this! Buy this book! Good Cop, Bad Daughter 

* here's a great short interview with Karen Lynch: 5 Questions

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