What if a stranger called social services on you? What if it was all a big misunderstanding that just kept escalating until you were in serious danger of losing your child? What if the only way to keep your child were to stay calm under the pressure of suspicion concerning your parenting? Would you be able to stay calm? Would you avoid the temptation to explode in anger?
These are the troubling questions evoked by this week's book review pick: What I Did: A Novel by Christopher Wakling (to be released on July 17, 2012). This is a short, fairly fast-paced novel told in the voice of a six year old boy, Billy. Billy is energetic and imaginative. His family, who dearly loves him, is also often exasperated by the impulsive and foolish things his energy (which Billy describes as "the electricity" in him) lead him to do. In the opening of the book, Billy tells us that this story "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." He also tells us, "I...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 with each other and produce terrible chemical reactions."
Sure enough, one day Billy wakes up way too early, so his father takes him for a walk to try to use up that early morning energy. They end up at a city park and Billy decides to take off running away from his father...straight into traffic. He is not hit by a car (miraculously), but he terrifies his father who gives him a firm spanking right then and there. A stranger sees the spanking, gives the father a tongue-lashing, follows him home to find out his address, and calls social services.
And so begins a confusing saga in which all of the adults try to figure out "what's best for Billy," but in which Billy and the adults involved all might as well be speaking foreign languages to one another. Billy is convinced everyone is mad at him and that his father, after forgiving him for running into the street, is breaking his promise and continuing to tell everyone about the naughty thing Billy did. He also does not understand how the social workers who come to visit (who he calls "Butterfly" and "Giraffe") will misconstrue his report of what happened and will hear him describing child abuse when he is describing no such thing. Nobody asks enough questions or the right questions. Nobody really knows what is going on.
Using the voice of a child for a popular piece of fiction was done incredibly well by Emma Donoghue, author of Room: A Novel (a novel as powerful and haunting as I ever read); for this reason, I regard Donoghue's novel as the gold standard for children's voices in adult fiction. Wakling does not quite rise to Donoghue's expertise in using the voice effectively, but what he does do is show us how we may think children understand what is going on, while they are seeing reality entirely differently. I felt that reading this book gave more empathy for my daughter and a desire to help her understand reality better. Billy's voice also gives us countless amusing "mis-hearings" of words we use as adults, such as this gem: "A very long time is called a neon." Also, Billy's thoughts frequently include his father's words to him, as if they were his own thoughts. Children are so very integrated with their parents at this young age and do not really think for themselves in may ways. This was an effective way to convey that Billy's father is inside his head, both chiding him and united with him through a bond of love.
My main critique of this book is one that will really only be relevant to Christian readers. I disliked the frequent use of profanity (taking the Lord's name in vain) by the father. Still, this is not a Christian book and so I suppose it may not be fair to expect the omission of profanity. Without it, however, I would have found the book a more pleasant read.
This book will stay with me for a long time. It is ultimately about the love between a parent and child and the fierce bond between them. It is about how parents and children unintentionally misunderstand each other. You will have to read it for yourself to see how it ends!
4 stars. Recommended.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advance digital copy of this book free from William Morrow. I was not required to write a positive review.
The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in
accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”