Author: Joan Heartwell
Hamster Island is Heartwell’s story of growing up ordinary in family that embodied dysfunction. Her childlike shame for her special needs siblings is balanced by a fierce love that, occasionally, enabled her to shed her diffidence and perform extraordinary feats of pluck and valor. Funny and heartbreaking simultaneously, Hamster Island is a coming-of-age in the tradition of such darkly comic memoirs as Mary Karr’s The Liars Club and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors; it delights while exploring issues of identity, transformation, and responsibility.
I was impressed by this talented author and her attention to detail as she takes us back to the sixties, as a teenager living amidst a truly dysfunctional family composed of an indifferent father, a religious fanatic mother, a kleptomaniac grandmother, and two special-needs siblings.
With her deft pen, the author offers the reader a glimpse into the heart and soul of a sensitive girl and her conflicting, contradictory emotions which range from intense rage to chilling sadness to heart-breaking love, and then some. At times painful, at times humorous, Joan paints a vivid picture of her world and her struggles as she tries to survive among unfit adults who instead of being there for her, supporting and guiding her, as they should, turn her universe into one where she herself must become the grown-up and caretaker.
Joan’s prose is smooth and fluid, often witty and at times truly beautiful. Her tone is dark, which fits the story and subject well. So many themes are explored in this memoir…religious fanaticism, duty, freedom, compassion, sacrifice. Hamster Island is a memoir that makes the reader ponder about life, the people we don’t like but whom we love, and the sacrifices that we must make for our family. Highly recommended for fans of memoirs!