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Reviewed by Lucinda E Clarke for Readers' Favorite
Phenomena - The Lost and Forgotten Children by Susan Tarr tells the story of Malcolm who, through a series of circumstances, is placed in the care of the mental health services in New Zealand. From an early age, he lives in an institute for the insane under a system that would never be permitted in the 21st century. His story unfolds at intervals throughout the book in between stories of the other inmates, all of them heartbreaking. From his earliest days Malcolm tries to please, to be good, and we see how his very understandable actions and reactions are misinterpreted. Not only do we learn about the patients, but many members of the staff; some kind, others with little sympathy for the inmates.
Susan Tarr has drawn on real people in Phenomena - The Lost and Forgotten Children. She tells us she was familiar with the hospital, living in the nearby village, and she often visited it when she was growing up. The book pulls at your heartstrings, the plight of both old and young who were not considered normal in the middle of the last century. While many of them suffered from severe mental disorders, others had slipped through the cracks and were there because they were an embarrassment to their families – Malcolm himself was possibly suffering from mild cerebral palsy. Other inmates were homosexual, severely depressed, and in one instance a pregnant teenager whose parents declared her dead because her behaviour threatened the political ambitions of her father.
Although this was not an easy read, once I got into the book, I was hooked. The author handles the story with empathy and love. Her descriptions of the people, their living conditions, their trips out on special occasions and day to day lives are recounted skilfully, painting a complete picture and bringing the characters to life. You can’t help but grow to love them and connect with them. This is a really great read, highly recommended, and a stark reflection of life only a few decades ago.