Wednesday 12 May 2010

'the invisible enemy'

The Cuckoo Boy
by Grant Gillespie

To Hell With Publishing featured in a post last week, which is worth a look if you haven't seen it already, an independent publisher with a genuinely interesting take on the industry. Their new list is To Hell With First Novels, an imprint designed to nurture new talent through the process of delivering their debut work. First of the firsts is this dark novel from actor Grant Gillespie. Now, I have a confession to make: I know Grant. In fact we're represented by the same agency and have regularly made fools of ourselves at various commercial castings in the quest to put food on the table. This means that receiving, reading and reviewing this book could have been problematic. Luckily I had no idea about his writing until I saw his name in an email, so had no preconceptions or investment in it. I also strive hard to maintain my integrity whilst reviewing, there doesn't seem any point to me in writing puffed-up reviews, which actually means that my only worry was what to do if I didn't like it, having said I would write a review. Worry not, there shall be no vague statements or faint praise here. The Cuckoo Boy is an amazingly assured debut that tackles some big themes, peopled by ambiguous characters and, most importantly, a distinctive creativity from first page to last.

Kenneth and Sandra Gardner have seen several years of their married life elapse and find themselves in their late twenties, any attempt to have children so far fruitless. A trip to the doctor confirms the worst and they realise that adoption will be the only way to bring a child into their life. After a frustrating period of rejections and technicalities they finally receive the call they have been waiting for and the moment that Sandra in particular has envisaged for such a long time.

Sandra had rehearsed this moment time and time again. She would smile at him, a smile burning with love, and he would smile back, a broad smile brimming with recognition. In that instant they would choose each other. For ever.
   The reality was somewhat different. She looked at this...this thing, this...someone else's child...and love was not a word that sprang to mind. Fear was closer to the sensation she was feeling, fear mixed with an unwanted wave of revulsion. Nor did he smile back at the brave upturning of her mouth. He looked through her, entirely unmoved.

Parents worry about transferring any of their anxieties onto their infant children and Sandra immediately transfers hers onto us. Thrown by the disappointment of her first meeting she overcompensates, relegating Ken to the background whilst she attempts to bond with her child, his only real contribution the child's name, James, rather inauspiciously taken from the bottle of whiskey he has been driven to. Immediately it seems that James is no ordinary child. Gillespie doesn't achieve this with any theatrics but through a series of unsettling details that play on the anxiety of any new parent who asks themselves all the time during their child's development, 'is that normal?' Their new baby seems to sleep for his entire first year, hardly ever crying, he doesn't walk until two and a half, and takes tantrums and the terrible twos to a whole new level, one incident leading to an accident that leaves him with his head split open and a scar that 'scored his side-parting like chalk'

Sandra continually tried to smooth his hair over it, but it stubbornly refused to be covered up, And a sudden, sideways jerk of James's head was all it took to reveal the skeleton finger scar, which pointed to his parents, reminding them of how they'd failed him.'

The opening section of the book will be an unsettling read for any parent, a brilliantly observed study of two inexperienced and ill-suited parents struggling to cope with the demands of a child who, despite the assurances of the adoption authorities, seems to be far from normal. This isn't so much an examination of nurture versus nature (although there are elements of that), and nor is James overtly different, but slowly Gillespie builds up the events that build a larger and larger gap between parent and child.

James's parents had unwittingly succeeded in arming him both physically and verbally. He was fearless, despite his small frame, and cunning to boot. When they scolded him he took to laughing. Only now they were reluctant to raise a hand to him for fear of him raising his to another. They had no emotional or retributive hold whatsoever. whenever they came too close he simply spat out, 'You can't touch me, you're not my parents,' and they were crushed like invertebrates.

One feature of childhood brilliantly perverted is the imaginary friend. James's first word is an attempt to say David, the boy who seems to be his constant companion as he grows older, and the one feature that Ken and Sandra truly struggle to deal with. Used as a confidante, comfort, excuse and primarily a weapon, David takes on an almost supernatural tinge when we know that James was a twin, his brother having died before birth. But this is a fine psychological study rather than a spine-chilling horror and the relationship between James and David is vividly created, David as real a character as any other and indulged as such by the Gardner's on the advice of a psychologist. It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real - never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David.

From the early stages there is a danger about James, a hint of what he might be capable of, so that when Sandra and Kenneth find themselves blessed by the gift they thought a doctor had taken away from them years before, the reader feels immediately terrified by what this might mean for the family. The impending arrival is also a chance to show the subtle psychological similarities between Sandra and James. Many women when pregnant give a name to their unborn child, sometimes totally unconnected to what they might be thinking of as a potential name for when they are born, a secret bond between the two of them before the baby comes into the world.

Amy was her secret name. It was for their private mother-daughter chats. And now, suddenly, David - the unseen - did not seem so ridiculous. Sandra had her very own concealed child and she too felt the urge to talk to her, encourage her, collude with her and cut out the rest of the world.

A lot happens in this book as we see James (and David) develop into a young boy but I don't want to spoil any of that for you. Each event leads compellingly onto the next, the pace propulsive so that however much you may not want to know what happens next you can't help but turn the page to find out. The writing is filled with neat descriptions of character and behaviour. Grandad Gordon sits 'like a hippo in his exfoliating armchair, while his oxpecker wife hopped about him, preening him, cleaning him, taking what nourishment she could from him.' Sandra under the strain of bringing up James on her own for the most part has to 'ask him to play in his room for a while, so that she could gather up her scattered thoughts like a deck of cards and try to regroup them in their proper numerical order.' We are all too familiar with the hysterical response shown by the media to children who exhibit behaviour that strays from the norm and towards violence in particular. By taking a detailed look at the slow, steady development of one particular child Gillespie has provided a cultural response that highlights both our own culpability and the difficulty of knowing how much damage may have been done to someone before there's a chance to help them. Like the cuckoo that lays its eggs in other bird's nests it's possible that James just landed in the wrong one. Gillespie on the other hand seems to have landed in just the right one at To Hell With... A cracking début novel, which for all the seriousness I have mentioned here also has a wicked vein of humour running through it, given a quality production and I hope, after a few more positive reviews appear, a wide readership.

You can hear more about the book from the author himself in this interview.


dovegreyreader 12 May 2010 at 11:46  

Great review William, and really good to read another take on this amazing book. I'm still lingering in the nature/nurture territory and that first year of James's life.
Such a crucial stage for a baby and why did he seem to sleep for most of it?
What was going on with his parents?
Is that when the most damage was done to James and most of it unspoken? Boys are particularly susceptible to the disinterestdness of their mothers at this age and it all had me wondering.
It's a book that I will think about and debate with myself for months I feel sure.

William Rycroft 13 May 2010 at 01:06  

Thanks Lynne and you raise a very good point about the nature/nurture issue. I thinks it might be possible to read the book in different ways with regard to that and each of them would be valid. I'm sure that my own view was heavily influenced by my own experience and circumstances at the moment and I'm sure you'd say the same about your own. It's fascinating that the book is able to be detailed and convincing whilst also remaining ambiguous enough to spark some discussion.

Tom Cunliffe 14 May 2010 at 07:54  

You have read that one quickly - its still on my tbr pile and I'm afraid not that high up it either. I am pleased to discover that its a "good read" and will look forward to opening it sometime next month.

On another topic, I see that we both got our "de Zoet" reviews on Amazon on the day of publication - but there must have been a lot of review copies out there I think!

William Rycroft 14 May 2010 at 08:18  

It's a really good book Tom so I hope that you feel the same when it completes its stately progress to the top of the TBR pile.

As for de Zoet I think you're right. It's obviously one of the big reads this year and I for one had a proof as early as Christmas last year. I'm so pleased it actually delivers.

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