Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol

Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol is an inspirational and darkly humorous memoir that offers a rare male perspective on coercive relationships, charting the author’s exclusive pursuit of toxic partners and the lasting psychological trauma precipitated by a damaged childhood.

By Timothy Arden

It’s a bold claim cited by many an author and publisher alike that their book, and their book alone, will make you both laugh and cry. Bold however, because one reader’s giggle is another reader’s yawn.

Successfully evoking an emotion, and the ability to turn on the waterworks in a fellow human being, is less than straightforward, given that everything is relative to the life you’ve led (and so seen through the prism of your experiences to date). However, John Buchanan-Nicol’s new stream-of-consciousness memoir, Janus, does just that. Covering a lifetime on the receiving end of many a coercive and controlling relationship, this is the true story of one man’s journey to fulfil his “inevitable destiny”, after suffering at the hands of a very cruel and capricious stepfather.

For me, on turning each and every page it was like sunshine on a rainy day. I often found myself laughing at the author’s dark, self-deprecating humour through the tears, which at times, streamed down my cheeks. And that takes some doing!

Never preaching, never pontificating, and never losing the point, author Buchanan-Nicol, writing under a pseudonym for obvious reasons, takes you off on a myriad of magical tangents, almost conducting you through his journey, with all the skill of an orchestral maestro: flourishing his baton, increasing the tempo, dropping the base, bringing in the differing sections, while quietening the mood as the more poignant moments unfold.

And though this wonderfully written memoir sits under the guise of him rationalising just why it is that in relationships he continues to fall for partners who ultimately subjugate him, this is so much more than a victim narrative. It is, in fact a serious introspection, often allegorical, never illogical, and always written in clever ways that sometimes only make sense in retrospect of a chapter or at full circle and conclusion of an anecdote.

Janus, then, is told from the perspective of someone who has consistently been attracted to women who were, in his own word, “addicted to conflict”, while rejecting suiters who showed him any real love and affection. On this basis, he willingly enters relationships where he has to fight and acquiesce to unreasonable demands and expectations, in an effort to maintain the status quo—that of being in a state of constant friction and uncertainty.

Using the breakdown of his marriage as a backdrop, Buchanan-Nicol skilfully gives Janus a structure to bounce in and out of the many occurrences which have ‘made him, shaped him or near broken him’. And, in particular, his willing participation in his own subjugation.

We learn that at first, before he came to know himself and the psychological drivers behind this repeated allure to ‘Mrs Wrong’, the author really did believe that all of world’s ills, as set onto his shoulders by his various partners, were indeed all his fault and so his to bear. If only he did, as he writes, “jump that bit higher, move that bit faster, manage to actually move the house that bit to the left… then life really could have, would have been alright and normal.”

It’s very much the mindset of the victim, and one that can never bring about the fundamental rebalancing and harmony within the relationship that they seek. It was only after years of painful attrition that he realised, the hard way, that with his partners the ‘game’ was never about outcomes but was instead all about the process. Again, as he puts it so eloquently, “The process of anguish and grief and trauma and drama.” Problems and issues, therefore, were not presented to be resolved but, instead, to be endured, to be wallowed in and exploited.

Like a “Christian to Jesus Christ”, he contends, he has consistently fallen in love with partners who he has also opted to be fearful of. The roots of this inverted, insalubrious form of attraction all stems from his youth, spent with his diplomat—though highly undiplomatic—stepfather, Antonio.

From the outside it would seem a thrilling childhood, travelling the world and moving in high circles, but the story behind closed doors was very different. Antonio never raised his hand to his stepson but his constant, calculated attacks were, in some respects, far worse. He was, as the author describes him, a “psychological tormentor” who used intellect instead of force to detach the young Buchanan-Nicol from the family unit.

He writes. “He calculated what would hurt me and employed it with ruthlessness. He encouraged one action one day then scolded me for it the next. His houses were like museums, my childhood trappings consolidated to a cupboard in an up the stairs guest bedroom, a room which I was never allowed to personalise …his things like mines even, should I ever go near them.” Of course, he would make excuses for his stepfather to his friends, given no play dates were allowed nor chums could visit; excuses that is, for his weirdness. But like a battered spouse justifying their abuse to their inner circle, people soon started to figure things out, but by then, it was simply too late. “As with Antonio,” he continues, “this vendetta lasted a small child’s lifetime”.

Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol offers more than a straightforward victim narrative, providing a greater understanding of coercive relationships and the psychological drivers at play.

So, at this highly impressionable age, the author absorbed a model for affection that was bitterly twisted, and one which he has strived—against his best interests—to recreate ever since, based on what he learnt as a child.

Now, as an adult, he has a compulsion to be on the back foot, seeking out those who, in their own ways, have been equally damaged emotionally. They are united in an addiction to conflict; he, to imbalance. Having been raised to question his own self-worth, the author runs to those who can offer the same uncertainty in love, the same air of inscrutability. In short, he is trapped in a repeating pattern of acceptance and rejection—often both within the same day—as he plays out what is ‘normal’ to him.

It is rare to find such a testimony from a man, and even more so to discover a writer who can, as stated before, blend such raw, painful emotion with deftly-placed humour to take the edge off when required.

Janus is a one-of-a-kind book, then, and one that will be appreciated by men and women alike, as it serves both as a candid witness statement and route map to escape from toxic relationships. Those in such relationships will recognise the tell-tale signs and can, hopefully, draw inspiration for their own bid for freedom, while people who may know such victims will gain a much greater understanding of their pitiful condition. After all, coercive, controlling relationships are, sadly, extremely common, transcending age, continents, and cultures alike, while often carrying severe mental, emotional and health implications for the victims. They can drive people to self-medicate with alcohol, as in the case of the author, or seek refuge in drugs, self-harm or even suicide in a desperate bid to win back some—any—form of control.

In addition to the print edition, available in eBook format, there is also an unabridged audiobook version of Janus. This is wonderfully narrated by Steve Worsley (the famed voice of Detective Sergeant Logan McRae, from the popular HarperCollins audiobook adaptations of the Logan McRae series of crime novels by Scottish crime writer Stuart MacBride).

The term ‘page turner’ is a hackneyed description these days but it is also perfectly fitting for Janus—the first work in a long time where I’ve flipped a page back, just to enjoy a paragraph, a phrase, a sentence or statement even, all over again.

Janus by John Buchanan-Nicol is out now in eBook and audiobook formats, priced £3.99 and £4.99 respectively. The eBook edition can be purchased from Amazon, and Barnes & Noble, while the audiobook version is available on Audible, and Kobo . You can hear an 11-minute sample of Janus, narrated by Steve Worsley, here .

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