Chris Wakling must be sick of comparisons. His fifth novel, What I Did, is constantly being compared to Room (Emma Donoghue), The Slap (Christos Tsiolkas) and The Curious Incident.. (you know the one, by Mark Haddon). On the other hand, these are all huge bestsellers, which bodes well for his new book.
I’ve read all the above, and yes, there are some parallels. In fact I’ve read The Slap since reading What I Did and it seems a lazy comparison to me; other than the obvious fact that they both feature a slap, they are not that similar at all. I’ve got plenty to say about The Slap which is why I’ll be reviewing it here on my blog next week.
What I Did deserves to be assessed on its own merits. It’s written in the voice of Billy, a six year old boy whose Dad, Jim, smacks him when he runs across a busy road. The scene is witnessed by an observer who, when Jim spectacularly fails to mollify her, informs social services. The novel catalogues the family’s ordeal as one awful misunderstanding after another makes the situation worse and threatens their future together.
There are a couple of things about the narration that intrinsically affect the story. Any writer knows that limiting themselves to a single character’s first person account makes for a difficult job and never more so than when the narrator is a young child. In Billy, Wakling has created a uniquely engaging but at times daringly irritating voice. I have no doubt that this is deliberate. Billy is an intense and unusual child who would get on anyone’s nerves. He interprets everything in a totally literal way and the book is full of his oronyms (I had to look that up) or misheard words and phrases, many of which are very funny. The gap between Billy’s understanding of what is happening and the reader’s is one of the ways in which the author builds extraordinary momentum and tension. There are no chapter breaks, pulling the reader in and giving a vivid sense that in a nightmarish situation like this, there really is no respite. It’s gripping stuff.
Despite everything, Billy and his Dad are close and given that we only have Billy’s account to go on, I think Wakling achieves a remarkably affecting portrayal of Jim, a father who loves his child but struggles with the day-to-day frustrations of being the main provider of childcare and working from home, ironically, in the communications business. Like all real parents, he is flawed and conflicted, and because of that, believable. His refusal to co-operate with the investigation had me howling out loud more than once. How can he not see he’s making it worse? But as the story develops, what starts out as stubbornness increasingly reveals itself as understandable desperation and I found the last part of the book poignant.
There are angles to the story which remain undeveloped and which I would have loved to explore, in particular the reaction of Billy’s mother, Tessa, who remains a curiously sketchy character and the role of her sister Cecily, who I thought was going to play a more significant part (when you read it you’ll see what I mean!) But that would have been a different book. And this is a good one.
POSTSCRIPT… BOOK GROUP RECOMMENDATION
I can also report that this is, as I suspected, an absolutely cracking book group book! We were lucky to have Chris Wakling visit our meeting last night and the discussion was very lively and entertaining. In the interests of impartiality I wrote this review before meeting him.