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.
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 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.
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!
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.