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A Million Little Pieces - James Frey

Review by Mark King

It's easy to see why James Frey was originally going to publish his harrowing memoir, A Million Little Pieces, as fiction. It reads like a novel - with strategically-placed characters popping up to assist Frey in his time at a rehab clinic, and a race-against-time ending that has the reader literally tearing at the pages in order to finish.

In the end, we must be thankful that Frey opted for an autobiographical account because it results in a simple tale of triumph over adversity that sucks one in with its frank, heartfelt, emotional rollercoaster of a narrative, made all the more real by the fact that it's a true-story.

The book opens with Frey waking on a plane with no idea how he got there, covered in blood and other dubious discolourings, with a huge jagged hole in his cheek and missing a few of his pegs. In short - he's a mess. And one more drink will kill him.

We later discover that Frey, wasted on a cocktails of drugs and booze, has fallen off a fire escape and landed on his face, hence the state of the man. His parents are flying him to the rehab clinic in Minnesota and, within pages, he's there, starting his recovery program with as much enthusiasm as a bored call-centre worker.

We follow Frey as he begins to suffer from withdrawal symptoms and slowly gels with his new friends - themselves a motley collection of drug-dependents, suicidals and perverts. Following Frey as he makes and breaks friends (and pursues one beautiful character in particular) is a joy. In many ways, the book is a love story in the classic mould; two star-crossed lovers trying to keep their love alive amid hostile, ever worsening conditions. Indeed, it is a testament to the power of Frey's writing that we believe in this relationship and want it to succeed from the off.

A Million Little Pieces differs from standard therapy-lit (or Theralit, to give it an anti-depressant ring) in that he makes no excuses for himself, does not become bogged-down with trying to find out why he is the man he is and does not subject the reader to acres of self-pitying sniveling and fake, counselling-fuelled epiphanies.

This approach can, of course, cause problems. There are certain scenes that are almost too graphic to read, made all the worse by our knowledge that they actually occurred (one visit to the dentists in particular is horrible). And Frey, despite revealing the many deplorable things he has done in the past, often comes across as a smug anti-hero who may, or may not, be bragging about some of his time in the clinic.

Towards the end, however, A Million Little Pieces had me reaching for the Kleenex as Frey and his newly-acquired friends come to terms with their situations and struggle to plot a line for their futures. Ultimately, the book rings true and it's the recognition that there is something of the Frey in all of us that really hits home.

A Million Little Pieces is one of the most affecting books I've read, and certainly the best book of 2003 to date. Oh, and I forgot, Frey was just 23 years old when he entered rehab - which is a sobering enough thought for anyone.

392 pages, published by John Murray, £16.99.

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