A Boy made of Blocks, Keith Stuart

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Autism seems to be an increasingly popular condition to explore in modern literature. From Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and even the 9/11 story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Autism is a recognised and familiar trait that authors are able to use to explore what it is that makes up humans, and why we are as we are.

When I first started reading A Boy made of Blocks, I was quite skeptical – I had picked this up as a Buy One Get One Half Priced offer at the airport back in January, and wasn’t sure where it would go. I grew increasingly frustrated with Alex, the protagonist who has left his home, wife and son due to the difficulties that having an autistic child has put on their relationship. Alex initially comes across as a highly ignorant and self centred individual, unable to take on the responsibilities that come with having a child like Sam. He is stuck in a job he hates, in a marriage that focusses around one thing, and the memory of a childhood trauma which he blames himself for. He casts a semi-sympathetic figure, but mostly seemed unlikable. His grasp on autism seemed very thin for a man who has an 8 year old son with that diagnosis, and I was left wondering whether the author was simply tagging onto a new trend in which people are determined to come to understand autism better, and so are happy to read about it in literature.

Then I read the author synopsis and things came much more clearly into shape. When Stuart’s son was 7 he was diagnosed with autism, after several years of chasing a diagnosis. It seemed like a huge barrier for them to overcome, but through the use of Minecraft, Stuart claims ‘Minecraft helped us to see and appreciate him as a funny, imaginative and perceptive child – it helped us to meet our boy’. So rather than a fictional story using autism to draw in readers, this became a semi-autobiographical story of the struggle between a real father and his son. Stuart reminds us that ‘Sam is not Zac’, but this allowed me to read the novel with a lot more sympathy and understanding. Rather than growing frustrated with an author who seemed to only do lazy research, I could read this more as a father’s honest confession of coming to terms with a life long condition which means, for some, that your own child cannot look you in the eye. Once I had that understanding of the motivation for the novel, I was able to enjoy it much more, which was lucky because as it progressed, it did become a moving and inspiring story.

Alex

I’m still not sure that I really like Alex as a character, but alongside Sam he is the only one who really comes across as actually being three dimensional. The loss of his brother, George, at the school gates when they were just children, still haunts Alex who has yet to deal with it. As a result, he has never picked his own child up from school, being too afraid to face the school gates, even though it’s not the same place. The novel starts with Alex leaving home to move in with his friend Dan. The first person narration meant that I was able to follow Alex’s changes closely, from being afraid of autism and his son, to realising that it wasn’t a barrier to love, and it fact made Sam more precious and special in Alex’s eyes. It was nice to see Alex experience redundancy and turn that into a positive experience, though I think we all wish our friends could be as generous as Dan financially. Overall, Alex’s journey was very satisfying and very human – his anger over Jody’s potential infidelity, his denial and eventual search for help and his career changes, all made him  a realistic and approachable protagonist.

The others

The other characters, however, certainly seemed much more two dimensional and flat. Jody – the self sacrificing mum and tired wife who needs space. Clare and Matt – the perfect family with a dark secret. Dan – the popular, good looking best friend with an easy life. Emma – the absent sister who reunites with the family. The teachers and the side characters had little to no life of their own, and were simply objects to move the story forwards rather than well crafted creatures. The development of Emma and Dan’s relationship was obvious from the star and despite the romantic gesture, you didn’t really feel like they had come far. It was all too simple and easy. Overall, whilst the personal story of Alex was moving and inspiring, it was undermined by a totally average portrayal of other characters and their lives. I suppose this is the punishment I get for reading something as detailed as The Wheel of Time, where the author has 14 books to make sure we know every characters middle name, hair colour and favourite sandwich! But in order to engage me again, Stuart would have to work on his minor characters to prevent them from feeling like plot techniques and help them feel more like people.

Sam

Stuart’s portrayal of Sam is the redeeming and best feature of this novel. He really uses Minecraft to show how scary the world can be for an autistic child, allowing the reader to see that a sense of order is entirely necessary for a child with autism to make it through the day. Not only does the game help Alex to understand Sam better, but I genuinely feel like I’ve had a valid insight into the mind of a child with autism, which as I’ll soon be going into teaching is an invaluable thing.

Sam is a boy who finds life overwhelming. His social interactions are awkward and often stunted, but what Stuart does capture to a degree is the ability of children to ignore that and get on anyway – from Olivia and friends rebuilding the castle to Tabitha just talking at Sam and paying him attention, the children in the novel are accepting and kind towards Sam. This is paralleled with the bullying he receives in school; however, this was not really explored to any extent and again, seemed more like a plot technique than a real issue. As an aside, I have worked for and volunteered in several schools and I found Stuart’s portrayal of teachers and schools extremely scathing. Stuart must have had some bad experiences with his own son, but I hope that no teacher is as cold and ignorant as those he wrote in this novel. Bullying is dealt with in schools, as part of a legal expectation, and vulnerable children are often more watched out for than parents realise.

Sam’s progression throughout the novel, from a shy, quiet boy with no friends and no connection with his father, to a confident, brave child with a close relationship with his dad, is heart warming to watch. When he does finally enter the Minecraft competition, his final design is beautiful and shows a deep emotional connection to Alex – for once, I’m not going to write what it is here because that really would be a spoiler!

The Verdict

Overall, this was an alright novel. The writing was clear and concise – as a journalist by trade, this is what you would expect from Stuart. The story has power and meaning and the all important personal touch, despite the two dimensional nature of the novel as a whole. Most of all, though, I do believe this is a powerful novel in helping the wider population to gain an understanding of autism and an appreciation of the strain it can put on a family. That said, I think that Alex is an extreme case of disinterest, and it would have been nice to have a family in the novel where they aren’t broken down due to the condition – the only other autistic child is raised single-handedly by his mother.

I can’t say I would seek Stuart out specifically as a new author to follow, but should I have the chance I would be interested to read a book of his based on less personal experiences, as I don’t think it would have the same depth and positivity that this novel does, ultimately, show.

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The Widow, Fiona Barton

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I love a bit of variety to my reading, and this book certainly provided that. I picked it up because of the blue circle on the front – ‘perfect to fill the dark void left by The Girl on the Train’‘. I question the comparison – although I can see spousal abuse in The Widow, The Gril on the Train had a much more powerful and harmful portrayal of that, whereas the Widow is darker because it is about children.

Caution! Spoilers!

This novel held an element of mystery from the beginning, even though you think you know who the perpetrator of the crime was. Jean seems, initially, confused and lost, but as the book progresses you start to realise that her sanity is not complete and that she knows far more than she lets on.

There is a consistent level of doubt throughout the novel about whether Glen was Bella’s kidnapper, or whether others, such as Doonan, were actually responsible. This held up throughout Sparkes’ investigation, right up until about 50 pages from the end when all other suspects were ruled out. By that time, however, Jean had revealed enough that the reader was far more certain anyway that Glen had been responsible.

The use of flashbacks, and using dates almost like police logs helped to create the feel of an investigation. The reader never has all the information until the end, which means that they feel Sparkes’ frustration and are desperate for Bella to be found.

As a mystery novel, this was well written, well paced and well laid out.

But the content was difficult. Child pornography, child rape, kidnapping, the intimation of abuse towards Bella… It was almost too difficult to read. Without in any way being explicit, The Widow paints a picture of an underworld of dangerous and harmful porn that leaks out into the real world to the endangerment of living people.

The one chapter written from Glen’s perspective, late in the book, shows how he made the decision to take Bella. He thinks to himself ‘it was a sickness, and he would get better’. Yet the plot continues and Bella is taken.

Barton writes addiction with skill and insight. Whilst anyone who suffers from addiction can relate to Glen’s struggle, you do not end up liking or feeling sorry for him. His emotional abuse towards Jean is evident from the outset of their relationship. She is allowed the semblance of freedom but is withdrawn and turned into an echo of Glen rather than allowed to develop as her own person. Glen is an emotionally damaged man, who cannot see past his own desires. His selfishness, his need, is what leads to Bella’s death. He is also weak, and a bit pathetic. He doesn’t remember what he did to her. He doesn’t remember how she died. We never find out what Bella really suffered. Because no one will ever know.

The development of Jean’s attachment to Bella, from the initial news event, to the moment she blamed Dawn for losing ‘our’ child, is impressive and painful. You can really feel Jean’s grief as she mourns her barrenness and aches for a child. She exhibits her own forms of mental illness, from the scrapbooks of pictures of children taken from magazines and newspapers, to the desire to ‘look after’ Bella in her death; to visit the place Glen left Bella and make sure it is cared for.  The conclusion to the novel is haunting: ‘Bella knew I was there, and that’s all that matters’.

The Verdict

I believe this was a debut novel, and I never once felt like I was reading a first time writer; probably because much of the story was told through the reporter Kate, and Barton herself was a reporter before trying her hand at fiction. Whilst I found the subject matter difficult, I did enjoy the suspense and mystery, and I would look out for this author again.