(Book Review) The Agony of Bun O’Keefe by Heather T. Smith

By Katy Goodwin-Bates

If I can describe a book as both lovely and strange, it’s probably going on my favourites list. Hence Heather T. Smith’s The Agony of Bun O’Keefe, with its huge reserves of loveliness and delightfully peculiar protagonist, has carved itself a cosy little niche in my affections.

It’s Newfoundland in 1986, and 14 year old Bun has spent her whole life squeezed in among the products of her mother’s hoarding and almost completely isolated from the world outside. One day, her mother tells her to go and Bun, as always taking what she is told entirely literally, sets out on her own. Lending the book something of a fairy tale element in its fortuitousness, Bun finds herself informally adopted by a group of misfits, each with their own reasons for sharing her outsider status, and she begins to understand a little more of the world from which she’s been so removed.

Boxes and bags lined the walls. As I squeezed down the hall I said therianthropy over and over ’cause I liked the way it bounced in my mouth. It was one of the words I said out loud when I hadn’t used my voice in a while. It meant “having the power to turn into an animal.” I’d read it in an old anthropology textbook and I thought, Wouldn’t it be nice if my mother could turn herself into a hummingbird? That way she could flit in and out through the piles of junk that filled every nook and cranny of the house. It was a nice thought, her being a shape-shifter. Maybe, I decided, that’s how I should remember her.

I found the introduction of Bun’s home life, followed by her immediate escape from it a bit disorienting, but it’s an effective way of dripfeeding details of Bun’s hoarder mother and the lonely life they’ve endured, as well as placing the focus on Bun’s development. She’s charmingly naive, with no idea of what is appropriate to say, which creates pathos and humour in equal measure, although her lack of worldliness also leads to some less whimsical and more horrific situations. Smith adroitly manages some truly dramatic and tragic developments within the novel, which only serve to add to the reader’s affection for her heroine.

He scanned the page. “Ronald Reagan is accused of selling arms to Iran.”
“That means weapons,” I said.
“Yes,” he said. “I know.”
“I found a book once called A Farewell to Arms. I wondered if it was about amputees. But it was about war.”
Busker Boy’s lips curled into a smile. I couldn’t see why. There was nothing funny about war.

Aside from the focus on Bun and her realisation that you can make your own family if the one you’re born into disappoints, the book handles some weighty matters, from religion, mental illness, abuse and the issue of missing native women in Canada. It’s certainly a novel that pulls its reader into some daunting topic areas, but, as we’re exposed to them through Bun’s innocent narrative, the effect is never too much. It’s impressive for such a short book (it’s about 225 pages long) to be equipped to touch on some difficult subjects sensitively yet effectively.

Deceptively slight in size but emotionally complex in content, The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is a sweet, big-hearted book that tackles serious issues without weighing down the story of its disarmingly adorable protagonist. I’d describe it as a cross between Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (one of my favourite 2017 releases) and Mosquitoland by David Arnold (one of my favourite books of ever). Bun has the same naivety and tragic isolation as Eleanor in the former, while her friendship with the motley crew of young adults who informally adopt her has echoes of Mim’s travelling crew in the latter; it all adds up to a really lovely and emotional read. Overall, I think of this book as a really good find and one which I will hold close to my little bookish heart.

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