This was one of those books that was so good I had to wait a couple of days before starting another. It is, apparently, Wakling’s sixth novel, but I have never read anything of his before and I don’t know if any of his previous writing is so good.
In a way, this book has an echo of ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue in that it is also narrated by a child. In another way, it has a similar theme to ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas in that it revolves around someone slapping a child, yet it stands out by itself as a brilliant piece of writing. (I didn’t like ‘The Slap’ at all.)
It is narrated by a six-year-old boy, Billy, who lives with his mother and father. His mother works night-shift so often his father looks after him, especially in the early morning. Billy is not labelled as being a ‘special needs’ child by Wakling, although he fizzles with ‘electricity’, which makes his body jump and run without meaning to. He cannot sit still, nor walk slowly. A nature lover, Billy describes people as animals – his mother is a prairie dog who never stops working. Billy is a wolf that can lope for hours, “a tireless method of hunting their prey“.
Billy also uses malapropisms, some so nearly exact that the reader could miss them. Wakling is clever enough, though, not to use too many so it doesn’t become a cute narrative device to endear Billy to us. Billy’s dad makes pancakes with golden stirrups; we inherited reflux from our ancestors.
“…Instead of walking back towards where his voice is coming from through the trees, I decide to do the exact opposite and I begin loping tirelessly further away towards the road with cars on it instead.”
As he reaches the road, his father grabs his coat, yet Billy manages to wiggle his arm out of it and runs into the traffic. His father grabs him “with tremendous peregrine speed,” pulls him back and explodes in anger at him.
“His good hand (one was in plaster) smacks me once, then again, and another time, very, very, very hard across my bum and thighs, backs of my legs.”
It happens, all of us parents know what that anger is like, but a passer-by sees it happen and reports his father to social services. So the downhill slide towards emotional hell for the family starts, firstly with a social worker’s visit, then a medical examination until Billy’s father can’t be with his son unless supervised. Billy observes all this through his eyes, calling the social worker the Butterfly; the next social worker is the Giraffe. Through the whole process, we end up unsure whether Billy’s father is an abusive father, or whether Billy has confused things and ends up telling social workers what they might want to hear.
The novel is an acute study of emotional family life, the difficulties of being a parent and the complexities of a child-parent dynamic. It is funny, I couldn’t help laughing sometimes, but it must be classified as tragicomic, as so much of the story is heartbreaking. Billy’s six-year-old voice never wavers throughout; I felt like I was with Billy the whole time seeing the experience through his eyes and that alone, I think, is the mark of an extremely accomplished writer.
- What I Did, By Christopher Wakling (independent.co.uk)
- To smack or not to smack? An interview with Christopher Wakling (romankrznaric.com)