Books featuring a mother with a mental illness · Disability representation

Book Review: I am the Minotaur

Author: Anthony McGowan
Publisher: Oxford University Press (2021)
Genre: Contemporary fiction (for a middle grade readership)

Matthew is 14 and is struggling to fit in – something that’s extra hard when you’re taking care of your mum, being bullied at school, and have earned the nickname Stinky Mog because of your poor personal hygiene.

On top of all that, he wants to catch the attention of one of the coolest girls in school, Ari. Ari doesn’t walk: she floats, like mist on the water. And she’s as sporty as she is cool. When Ari’s brand new bike is stolen, Matthew spots his chance to make a good impression by getting it back for her…

But will he just end up in even more trouble or is Matthew is about to learn that friendship and heroes can be found in unlikely places?

I Am The Minotaur was a short novel for young readers. McGowan explored heavy topics such as bullying, isolation and parental mental illness in an age-appropriate manner.   

Matthew (or ‘Stinky Mog’)’s experience with bullying and isolation was a vehicle for McGowan to explore these broad societal issues. As a consequence of his isolation from and, essentially, invisibility to his classmates, Matthew knew them (and Ari in particular) from afar. Matthew even seemed distanced from himself. He would refer to himself in third person before correcting himself, explaining that “He – no, I – I sat on my own at lunch.” Like many lonely students, Matthew found a refuge in the library. Although Matthew kept his head down, the signs of his home life (his ill-fitting uniform, unwashed hair and malnourished appearance) made him a target for ridicule. Such ridicule was a minor issue compared with the responsibility he shouldered at home.

 McGowan dedicated the novel to “all the young carers,” and Matthew was one. He started getting the groceries when he was only seven or eight because his mum “sat on the settee all day and…stopped changing out of her nightclothes.” He would cook their meals and wash his own clothes by hand with dishwashing detergent because the washing machine was broken, and they had nothing else. Matthew’s feelings about his mum were complex and reflected the common experience of children in his situation. McGowan wrote that Matthew sometimes “hated my mum and blamed her for everything. But the hate wasn’t true…Loving hurts much more than hating. When you hate something you can walk away from it or shut it out of your mind. But you can’t do that with love. Love is always there.” Around halfway through the novel, Matthew and his mum had a proper conversation. Matthew’s mum used age appropriate language to explain how she’d been feeling and she acknowledged the support Matthew had provided. She didn’t try to shield him from the truth; she recognised that he deserved to hear it. Matthew learned that his mother’s new doctor treated her as a person, asked questions and cared about the answers. He learned that his mum would soon start talk therapy and that her new medication was already making a difference. This scene was significant and refreshing because it recognised Matthew’s maturity and his right to information, as well as emphasizing the importance of person-centred, strengths-based health care.  

For all its strengths, there were a few areas on which the novel could have taken a sharper focus. For instance, Matthew’s mum used mobility aids to get around, one of which was a mobility scooter that Matthew “hated.” There was no recognition from Matthew or his mum that it was her mobility scooter that allowed her to get around at all; she would be even more restricted without it. This is critical because depictions of people with disability and negative representations of mobility aids perpetuate ableist ideas about disability. Additionally, Matthew’s view of his mum changed towards the end of the novel not because he saw her differently but because she was in the right place at the right time to frighten his bullies away. He expected to feel humiliated that his schoolmates saw his “terrible, embarrassing hopeless mum” but instead he “felt saved.” Furthermore, his mum got out of her mobility scooter and barely leaned on her stick as she approached Matthew’s bullies, and this equated her physical ability with strength of character. An alternate take on this is that Matthew’s mum was still someone of whom he could be proud even if she’d leaned on her stick, even if she’d used her mobility scooter the entire time. Disability representation is tricky and nuanced and though it was important that McGowan included the character of Matthew’s mum at all, she could have been far more empowered.

On the whole, I Am The Minotaur was an engaging coming of age story that offered a message of hope and resilience to its readers.

You can buy a copy of I Am The Minotaur from Booktopia.

You can donate to Kookaburra Kids, which supports children of parents with mental illness like Matthew.

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