I Never Said I Loved You by Rhik Samadder review – indecently entertaining

Actor and columnist Samadder’s memoir unspools his difficult life with lightness and warmly absurd humour

This is one of the most eccentric and uplifting memoirs I have ever read. It ought to be excruciating – Rhik Samadder writes about his variously devastating experiences: sexual abuse, eating disorders, self-harming and depression (this is only the abbreviated list). But if you wanted proof that writing can rise above what it describes, this is it. The book is a buoy on troubled water (not at all the same as a bridge over it). It is indecently entertaining: there are moments when one feels guilty for enjoying the writing so much. Samadder is not making light of his difficult life but is being light about it, which is a sort of victory.

The first time I came across him was in 2006. I was reviewing Rona Munro’s The Indian Boy, an RSC show inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Samadder was the star, the Indian boy – Oberon’s minion. He was fantastic. At the time, I innocently admired the restless way he paced up and down stage, imagining he must have spent time observing animals at a zoo to perfect their neurotic toing and froing in captivity. Little did I realise how much reason he had for pacing in his own life.

At this point, his mother should step forward to take a bow. She is the book’s heroine. She had no idea what had happened to her son (and if he is OK now, she can probably take some credit). She is characterised in gloriously outlandish detail (her jaw-droppingly bizarre menus adorn the book like doodles – or noodles). She wears a “Mother Teresa hat”. She adores travel. She darts around the globe. After Samadder’s father’s death, she teaches herself “a new skill every year: conga drumming, sculpture, digital storytelling”. Mother and son briefly fetch up in a hotel in Thailand, and this is where Samadder, failing to celebrate turning 30 and severely depressed, first tries to talk to his mother about the abuse he suffered as a child.

“Many people may have a dated, stereotypically seedy mental image accompanying the words ‘Bangkok hotel room’,” he writes, deadpan, before proceeding: “These people would be correct. Instead of chocolates, the staff had left condoms on the pillows of the bed.”

Being alive to absurdity is his great gift. And the moment in which he plucks up the courage to ask his mother about his grandmother’s depression has an incongruity to rival the Bangkok hotel. It is outside Hamleys, at Christmas, that he yells: “WHAT MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS DID YOUR MUM HAVE WAS IT SCHIZOPHRENIA OR DEPRESSION OR WHAT?” Later, Loch Lomond features – an inappropriately picturesque setting for a further heavy conversation – a reminder of life’s obliviousness to personal tribulation.

Rhik Samadder tests the Egg Master for his Guardian column Inspect a Gadget.
Rhik Samadder tests the Egg Master for his Guardian column Inspect a Gadget. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Yet Samadder never uses jokes to hide from horror and writes bravely about abuse. He shockingly explains, too, how the trauma of it has wiped his memory. It is ironic that the drama school he got into – Drama Centre – had earned itself the nickname “Trauma Centre”. Of his decision to act, he writes: “I did what anyone with low self-esteem and an ambivalent relationship to visibility does. I decided to become a professional actor.” He amusingly describes the way in which trainee actors are encouraged to lose several skins (go back to zero, start afresh).

It is tempting to think his writing might have profited from this training: his prose has its naked moments, with jokes as fig leaves. Samadder insists he wanted to become a Casanova at drama school and lets us in on his chat-up routine: “‘I’m a bad boy,’ I’d murmur huskily, ‘You’re funny,’ the ladies would often respond, which was confusing but still broadly positive.” The ladies were right, and Samadder has since evolved irresistibly from stage to page. He even turned journalist and contributed a successful “Inspect a Gadget” column to the Guardian (his review of the ridiculous Egg Master made him an internet darling), and now writes on wellness devices and fads.

Here, though, he reviews ways of coping with depression with the same wit with which he approaches gadgetry and an acknowledgment that anything that aims to combat depression is worthy of serious consideration.

Towards the end of the book, he writes: “Advice is like being handed a large amount of foreign currency. What do you do with it?” He knows how to convert it and offers readers (especially depressed ones) more than a handful of change. He considers the “why bother?” of depression that can “stop one working, or socialising, or eating” and does not peddle false cheer: “There are no answers given to us as to why we should do anything.” But the tip he passes on at the end of the book (part of a longer, darker sentence) is all the more upbeat for having been learned the hard way: “Stay open because life only gets richer as it unfolds.”

I Never Said I Loved You by Rhik Samadder is published by Headline (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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