Maggie and Me by Damian Barr

One sentence plot

Surprisingly cheery and uplifting coming of age memoir of a Scottish boy’s poverty, bullying, alcoholic parent figures, growing up gay, and Margaret Thatcher.


The review

Not til I turned the final page in this book with a smile of satisfaction did my wife remind me that we’ve actually met this author in real life: Damian Barr runs the impossibly hip Shoreditch Literary Salon we have attended in London. I’d just spent days loving cheery little “Gaymian” in the book, and willing him to escape the poverty, bullying, alcoholism, violence, unreliable parenting, and general misery of being a gay boy growing up in a poor part of Scotland. And here was real life proof that his fortunes had turned out quite differently than they started. When I realized that the very cool and cheery Damian Barr was the little boy from Maggie and Me, I got a sentimental and embarrassing tear in my eye. Because this is a memoir about surviving a grim childhood. That this book exists is of course some testament that he did, but the vision of him compering at that cool Literary Salon confirms it.

But against all expectations, this book is not actually grim. Maggie and Me has every element that could make it ripe for a harrowing misery memoir. And yet it is almost the opposite. Damian’s experiences skip from the sad to the joyful, the funny, the silly, the universality of being a kid. He addresses his many childhood challenges in a sensitive, generous way, affording sympathy and understanding to the many people who let him down. And throughout, his character is believable, sweet, funny, stoic, and hopeful.

The book has a fantastic sense of time and place, and the sort of Scotland you don’t often read about (a particular treat for me as I grew up there at the same time as him). This is all drawn together through the almost personal relationship the British public, and Damian in particular, experienced with controversial Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the eponymous “Maggie” of the book. The struggles of the adults in the book to succeed against the often harsh influences of a woman who is supposed to be working to help them reflects Damian’s struggles with his own parent figures, and conversely with insufficient parental authority in his life, he actually flourishes by embracing the authority this hated figure represents, and turning it into inspiration for how to succeed – and succeed he does.

His voice is likable, charming and funny. His stories are tragic and hilarious and ordinary and relatable. And I challenge anyone not to root for his success.

The verdict: 4/5 shoes


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