Tuesday, 13 September 2011

'what's best for Billy'

What I Did 
by Chris Wakling

A boy runs across a busy road. His father smacks him. A passer-by intervenes...

There's something of The Slap about the premise; a book I didn't read but was aware of, mainly due to all the controversy surrounding it and the general feeling that it wasn't really all that good (or didn't at least skewer its targets as effectively as might have been hoped). Wakling has chosen the moment a parent smacks a child to examine how a single event can turn the lives of those involved upside down, the way in which the machinery of society can intervene in the very private world of the family with devastating effect. The focus is very much on the family unit and the perspective is that of six-year-old Billy. In fact I'll hand over to him immediately to let him explain.

It is about a terrible thing which happens to me. But watch out because the thing you think is the terrible thing isn't really it. Other things come later and they're worse. I'm not going to tell you what they are yet because now isn't the time. That is called suspension.
I also have to warn you that nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce chemical reactions.
Did you know cheetahs cannot retract their claws?
Here is the real beginning.
So, a child narrator. Any regular readers of mine will know exactly how I feel about child narrators. I don't like them. Chris Wakling knows this as well because I mentioned it during a Twitter exchange and that's exactly why he wanted me to read his book, to try and convince me otherwise. Is he brave? Foolish? Desparate? Whatever the answer he knows that I'll have to be honest in my appraisal, so do I still hate child narrators? Yep. But Wakling's novel isn't nearly as irritating as it could have been or others have been and the final pages are genuinely moving. In his portrayal of a father who struggles to control his frustrations I'd be lying if I said I hadn't frequently reflected on my own parenting.

Billy is an engaging narrator, his fascination with nature documentaries framing his view of the world so that we get a sort of reverse anthropomorphism (or zoomorphism) where human characters are often assigned animal characteristics or names. The story is also peppered with the knowledge he's picked up from these programmes, delivered with the childish mistakes (deliberate or otherwise) that are there to make us laugh. Did you know this for example?

Prairie dogs are very copulative animals. They copulate together very well in hunts and that is why their hunts are among the most successful in the animal kingdom.

This trick is the kind of thing that can get wearing for me as a reader and some are simply funnier than others. I liked for example that 'God does not exist. He is a segment of the imagination' but the joke about 'posable thumbs' doesn't work if Billy inconsistently refers to them later as opposable. Where Wakling scores an undoubted hit is when he allows Billy to describe the film Avatar in its entirety in a page-long, stream-of-conciousness gabble. I found that hilarious without even having seen the film so I can only imagine that those that have will find it even more so. The point is that I'm always going to find it hard to believe that a six-year-old would write what I hold in my hand if it is novel length, no matter how genuine sounding the dialogue or phrasing, but that page on Avatar was like being grabbed by a little boy high on pick 'n' mix and surround-sound explosions and nailed to the floor with his excitement.

Billy has also been told by his father that it's his job to keep things interesting, 'I mustn't blame the boring feeling on anybody other than myself is what he says.' This is partly what creates the moment of drama that sets events in motion. Billy's active imagination sends him running from his father when they are in the park and into a busy road. It is his father's shock, guilt, relief and, when we come down to it, love for Billy, that makes him drop those trousers and smack his bum and legs. But for the passer-by it is an example of now-unacceptable behaviour and when she confronts him and is stung by his reaction we know it is only a matter of time before social services come knocking. First comes the 'Butterfly woman', then the 'Giraffe', Billy's father feels put upon, unjustly accused and as if his house has been invaded. He's not so much defensive as combative, refusing to toe the line, thereby frustrating both his wife, social services and the reader too. Several times I found myself tensing when he refused yet again to do something simple that might halt or even avert the rapidly approaching endgame. Wakling has clearly worked to make sure that each of these moments are believable rather than simply there to advance his plot, but it doesn't make them any less frustrating.

That zoomorphism mentioned earlier is even used by Billy's father to help try and explain what is going on and heightens the sense that he and Billy are the prey and that hunters are closing in on them as the novel progresses. I still think that a child's perspective limits what can really be achieved in terms of understanding, my reactions to Room by Emma Donoghue and Beside The Sea by Véronique Olmi bear that out, but Wakling to his credit manages some fine moments of perception. Some of these are pithy as when Billy notes that it's hard to know what's going on in children's heads especially if they can't talk yet whereas 'Adults are also tricky to understand, but for the opposite reasons.' But the entire text of the novel has a measure of the influence Billy's father has on him built into it and a clear indication of the love, respect and esteem in which he is held. Billy cannot help but parrot his father's maxims and turns of phrase so that frequently a sentence turns into a saying of his, complete with the added 'Son' bringing it to a full stop. It is this that keeps the reader's heart not only engaged but optimistic; we know that Billy loves his father and vice versa, all will be well if they can only find a way to negotiate the perilous terrain of the State. Billy in his incomprehension of the adult details only mirrors in some ways the incomprehension of us adults when confronted with the reality of raising a child and the confusing reality of what it means to love them. We're always learning; us from them as much as they from us.

Dad starts talking about when I was born. It's confusing. First he says it was the happiest day of his life, but then he says it was the day he first knew real fear. I am a miracle he says. His love for me was instantly bottomless, yet it deepens with each passing day. The fear, too. I don't know what he means but I make sure he is very reassuring by telling him it's ok, I didn't mean to do frightening.


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