I want to start this review in somewhat unusual fashion, with a word of thanks. To Chiara Priorelli at Allison & Busby for sending this wonderful book. It's a little out of my usual range, but Chiara, knowing my affinity for New England and for books set there, felt it might appeal because it was set in Connecticut, which was very thoughtful of her.
When Girls of Tender Age first arrived I wasn't sure. It looked like it might be one of those Dave Pelzer-style misery memoirs, which have never really appealed. I understand why people write them - it must be very cathartic - but struggle to work out why people would read them.
But once I took the plunge I realised I could not have been more wrong. Although there is a violent, tragic, disturbing event at the heart of this memoir, it is a wonderfully-moving and life-affirming book.
It is part autbiographical family memoir, part social history and part thriller, and succeeds on all counts.
Mary Ann, or Mickey as she is known to her family, is brought up in working-class Hartford in the 1950s at the heart of a sprawling French-Italian family. Her home life is off-beam. While her father is adoring and showers her with love, her mother is distant, resentful character. And then there is Tyler, her idiot savant autistic brother whose obsessive compulsive regime and long list of neuroses rules family life with a rod of iron.
For all that, it was a happy childhood, surrounded by friends and cousins and a freedom of movement and innocence that is unrecognisable in this neurotic age.
And the author's memory for the detail of her childhood, as well her descriptive brilliance and the judicious, incisive application of the wisdom of hindsight makes this a special book indeed. It helps, of course, that the characters are so full of life. Not least Tyler, who with his obsession with the second world war, is a constant source of absurity and hilarity, enough to make me feel guilty for laughing anyway. (And I was relieved towards the end of the group when Mickey joins a sibling counselling group where the participants laugh away at the antics of their brothers and sisters).
As a slice of family life in the '50s this is incredibly evocative and warm and frames well the attitudes and ethics that dominated the day. But there is a dark heart at the centre of the book: the murder and molestation of a friend of Mickey's at the tender age of 11.
Tirone Smith works this element extremely skilfully, gradually introducing the destructive presence over the course of the first half of the book, where he hangs like a cancerous shadow over Mickey, her family and the neighbourhood.
And once the murder takes place, the atmosphere changes everywhere as if an era has passed and a darker age has superceded it, although a veil of silence falls over the murder as if nothing ever happened including the life of the lost child.
And having been forced to close down and ignore the memory of her friend as a child, later in her life Tirone Smith decides to make up for lost time and lost memory of her friend by looking into the crime and discovering how and why it happened.
And she dissects the investigation, the trial, the political pressure and the treatment of victim and criminal alike, and suddenly the book is a study of the deficiencies of the legal and judicial systems.
And what is perhaps most striking - in this age of hysterical headlines - is that Tirone Smith doesn't judge the murderer. She is scathing in her criticism of everybody else, but he is treated with a compassion lacking in his treatment of his victims, which helps keep the book on an even keel.
It is also magnificently written, by a woman who clearly has an outstanding gift for story-telling and the touch of a genius in her use of language. (She has apparently written several novels, which I will very soon be hunting down)
Girls of Tender Age stands as a fitting and enduring memorial: to a lost friend; to a bygone age; to athe eccentricity of family life; to love and to loss. It is, quite simply, stunning.