Winner of the Wellcome Book Prize in 2014, ‘Far From the Tree: Parents, children and the search for identity’ is Andrew Solomon’s account of “ordinary people making courageous choices”. It is a densely written and detailed study which examines the links between identity and disability and the challenges faced by those perceived to be “different”. Divided into ten main topics, the first six (deaf, dwarfs, Down’s Syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability) focus on “horizontal” categories typically classified as illnesses, while the other four (prodigies, rape, crime, transgender) are “vertical” identities which are assumed to be socially constructed.
Even though I didn’t go to Andrew Solomon’s talk at the Hay Festival last year, I was intrigued by what I’d heard about ‘Far From the Tree’ and I bought a copy at the festival bookshop. I read the first four chapters over the Christmas holidays, then put it down for nearly three months, and then read the rest of it in between other books on the Man Booker International Prize longlist. Even with non-fiction, I very rarely put books down and come back to them weeks or months later but I was able to do so with this one. For me, it’s a book that is best read and absorbed in small parts, otherwise the scale of Solomon’s ambition could easily become overwhelming.
The wide range of topics addressed in ‘Far From the Tree’ meant I learnt a lot about all kinds of things I wouldn’t normally expect to read about in one book. For example, I didn’t know that Sweden is the only country which has a law requiring parents to meet representatives of the Deaf community before deciding whether their deaf child should have a cochlear implant. Or that the producers of the film adaptation of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ chose not to use actual mental patients as extras because they “did not look strange enough to match the public image of mentally ill people”.
As a dyslexic gay man, Solomon describes his own encounters with “difference” and explores his relationships with his parents and children in the first and last chapters ‘Son’ and ‘Father’. However Solomon’s main focus rests not on himself but on the stories of the hundreds of individuals he interviewed over the course of a decade. Some of them are well known such as the pianist Lang Lang and the parents of Dylan Klebold but the majority are not. Every single one of their experiences reveals something new and insightful about the nature of empathy and acceptance in parent-child relationships. Solomon draws a number of convincing parallels between different identities, such as those between the Deaf community and gay community and how child prodigies and children with disabilities both challenge their parents’ perception of what is “normal”.
‘Far from the Tree’ is an extraordinary book about extraordinary people: “Ordinary people insist that they are unique, while extraordinary people maintain that they are really just like everyone else.” The idea that difference is what unites us all is a powerful one and I would defy anyone not to be moved by this vast, compassionate study of what it is to be human.