The Agony of Bun O’Keefe – Heather Smith

When her 300 pound hoarder mother tells this smart as a whip yet extraordinarily literal 14 year old daughter to get out, Bun does and leaves the remote place she has always resided (I refuse to call it a home or living). She finds her home in the city with a group of strangers, the names of almost all we never learn.

Bun’s father left when she was five, at which point her mother made her invisible. Telling everyone Bun had gone with her father, her mother withdrew her from school after she’d only attended Kindergarten and proceeded to focus solely on her hoard. Bun taught herself everything she knows from the various books and VHS tapes that made their way into the house with the towers of stuff her mother gathered. Yes, you read that right. I said VHS. We travel back to the 1980’s in this book.

So, with all of Bun’s book smarts, incredible talent for memorising entire documentaries (here’s to you, Jimmy Quinlan) and her lack of any form of contact with the world except possibly on Tuesdays when she’d walk half an hour to shower at the RV park, Bun is completely naive regarding social norms. She doesn’t lie, doesn’t tell jokes and she doesn’t do sarcasm. What comes out of her mouth is usually delightfully inappropriate and giggle worthy.

I’m bleepin’ certain that my heart grew larger while reading The Agony of Bun O’Keefe and I’m pretty sure Bun is going to inhabit that extra space for a long time to come. This story should be a tragedy, covering a range of themes including sexuality, abuse, neglect, abandonment, rejection, sexual assault, suicide, grief, discrimination and outright bigotry, yet it’s not. The reason it’s not? Bun O’Keefe and her family. Not the family she was born into. Nope. They suck.

I’m talking about her other family that all live in the same temporary accommodation – Busker Boy, Big Eyes (thanks for the lesson in fake swearing, Big Eyes), Chef and Cher who is sometimes Chris. [Oh, and Dragon Man lives in the attic in the temporary accommodation but he is most definitely not family and doesn’t deserve precious words wasted on him.]

This book follows the lives of a bunch of society’s supposed misfits who we’d all be better off knowing and we would be so blessed to be grafted into their family. Everyone in this family have histories that haunt them and as we learn more about them and their pasts, we learn to love them all. This group of loveable outcasts show compassion that they haven’t been given, understanding that they’ve been denied and a purity of love that I doubt they’ve often felt, if ever.

The writing style made me want to beg Heather Smith to give me writing lessons. There was a simplicity to the way this book read, like you’re listening in on a conversation, but told in such a gorgeous way. I almost feel as though Heather bewitched me because I can’t tell you exactly how she made me connect so deeply and so quickly to this many diverse characters but she did a brilliant job. This book brought echoes of Billie Letts’ writing style to mind, perhaps because of the host of quirky characters and the ability to put a knife through my heart yet give me hope at the same time.

This should be one of the most depressing stories you’ve ever read but it’s told with such grace and beauty that I wound up smiling at all of the funny little things that made their way out of Bun’s mouth. Beneath the surface you are sure to feel an ache for her and the life that she and her new family have endured, and sometimes that ache will flare into an open wound, but you will be OK because this family won’t let you wallow in your sadness for long. Yes, I did need Kleenex and yes, I did cry six times but I promise you that over half of those times they were ‘oh, that’s so beautiful’ tears.

The ending was so sweet I could almost taste it but that didn’t bother me in the slightest. After what these people have been through, they deserve every snippet of happiness that comes their way.

Thank you so much to NetGalley and Penguin Random House Canada for the opportunity to read this book. This book is now one of my all time favourites. Whatever Heather Smith writes, I plan to read, no questions asked.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Set in 1980’s Newfoundland, The Agony of Bun O’Keefe is the story of a 14-year-old girl who runs away to the city and is taken in by a street musician who lives with an eclectic cast of characters: a pot smoking dishwasher with culinary dreams; a drag queen with a tragic past; a Catholic school girl desperately trying to reinvent herself; and a man who Bun is told to avoid at all cost.

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