Yet another five star review from me and I begin to wonder if I am becoming less critical in my "old" age! However this book absolutely deserves it in my view. The subject matter is serious but is handled in a very original way that makes it very readable, without detracting from the importance of the issues. Many ordinary, "good" parents will shiver at the possibility that this could happen to them - and we know that it sometimes does. Balance that against the far more frequent stories in the news of child abuse and we have the classic dilemma that social workers face every day of their working lives: damned if they do and damned if they don't. Many innocent parents will empathise with the reaction of Billy's father to the accusations against him and will recoil from the invasion of privacy and family life that results from a momentary action. So, that's the theme, but the beauty of this book is in the narration by six year old Billy, who is a bright child with an almost obsessive interest in natural history - which contributes in part to the misinterpretation of his father's actions. You will laugh out loud at some of Billy's "mis-sayings" - it took me most of the book to unravel his use of the word vertically - turned out to mean virtually. (We all have stories like this from our children. My son wanted to play a gitower with a stick (violin)and sit in a death (deck) chair. And I narrowly avoided social services when I gave him chicken maggots for tea.) It is Billy's efforts to do the right thing and to do what he thinks his parents want him to that leads them further and further into the nightmare and only by using Billy as the narrator could the author explain this through Billy's eyes. If you liked Room by Emma Donoghue you will like this device; if you didn't, then this might irritate you. For me it was a compelling read.
As soon as I started this book I was hooked, surprising as I don't usually like books written through the eyes of a child. This story uses this device very well, Billy is a bright six year old with a little boy's fascination with natural history. On the day the story starts, one half-term, he wakes his father too early, takes too long putting his shoes on, spills coffee on his father plus a multitude of other minor sins then, when he realises how cross his father is runs away towards the road and his father smacks him. A passer-by intervenes and this culminates in a visit from a social worker.
The story from this point on escalates, Billy tells the truth as he sees it, his Dad is annoyed at the interference and Billy's mother doesn't know what to think. The love between Billy and his Dad shines off the page, but life in this household is pressured before this incident and the investigation doesn't improve matters.
Billy's story is told in a mixture of his own words, cow sill for council, and natural history facts. Billy's conversations both with other people and to himself frequently go off at a tangent and having had a son this reminded me of some of those seemingly endless conversations. Despite being written from a child's perspective the story keeps up a good pace and I rattled through it.
This book reminds us all that sometimes doing or saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can have a huge impact on so many lives.
The blurb on the back of What I Did by Christopher Wakling intrigued me so much that I just had to pick this one from the Amazon Vine programme. I've had my nose firmly stuck between the pages for the past couple of days - this really is a wonderfully clever book.
The central storyline of What I Did could happen to any family. Imagine, you are out in the park with your six year old son. Both of you are in a bad mood - it's early, you have work worries, you'd rather be in bed. Suddenly your son runs off, over the park, through the trees and makes his way towards a busy road. You chase him, shouting for him to stop. You see him run out between parked cars, you see the traffic, your heart thuds. He's lucky, he stops, he's unhurt. You grab him - you smack him. You are so relieved that he is OK, but so damn angry too.
And so, that is the beginning of the story. Narrated by six year old Billy, and seen purely through his eyes, with his kind of mixed up feelings about his angry Dad and his pure innocence and honestly, that only cause the family more and more heartache.
Billy is a wonderfully drawn character, bright as a button, intelligent, obsessed with David Attenborough and wild animals and the attention span of an ant. At first his voice is a little difficult to relate to, he often muddles his words and at times he goes totally off-track, into random observations and information relaying. This only adds to his character, and makes him more lifelike. Six year old boys are like that, this is real life.
Somebody saw Jim (Billy's Dad) smack him, she confronted him and Jim told her where to get off - that was his second mistake, after the mistake of smacking Billy. Soon the family are visited by Social Workers and so begins a round of examinations, case conferences, meetings and accusations.
Throughout all of this, Billy's voice is loud. He answers the questions in his honest way - but it is the adults who get things wrong, they interpret his answers to mean different things, and Billy, in his innocence does not realise this.
Jim loves Billy, there is no doubt of that. Jim is also stubborn, short tempered and at times very angry. He swears, works too hard and drinks beer. He will not co-operate with the agencies involved, he makes things worse - for himself and for Billy.
This is a clever, entertaining, sad, funny and heart warming story. It is about real life, about mistakes that are made and about the innocence of childhood. I loved every page!
This is a hugely enjoyable piece of writing that wonderfully, painfully and funnily captures the chaos of family life. For once the cover blurb is an accurate and apposite expression of the book, so much so it's worth repeating:
"This is family life at its most believable: warm messy and raging." (E Donoghue, author of Room).
Stylistically it owes a lot to Mark Haddon's"The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night Time," having a child narrator whose linguistic and perceptual confusions of the world are embedded in the narration. This serves this particular tale very well. Billy is a warm, loveable and loving boy whose confusions and misunderstandings make us smile whilst propelling events in some startling and uncomfortable directions.
His father, Jim, is the other main protagonist and his voice is strong on every page, usually in his counsels and asides to his son that Billy remembers, ending them with the concluding "Son." This is a lovely device that helps bring this father -son relationship to life. And it's this relationship and that of the whole family that is endangered by one particular string of events (hyperactive Billy gets upset with Dad and runs off in the playground, across a road, nearly gets run over, fraught Dad smacks him, a passer-by comments, Dad further loses his temper (verbally) with the passerby, whole exchange gets reported to social services).
Everything that happens in this book is convincing and has its roots in the believable myriad of pressures that a family operates under these days; work, constant pressures from mobiles, national and global events we feel powerless under, the emotional pressures that come with real familial relationships, demands on time, need for space and so on. And so the opening events are impulsive and spontaneous to a degree but in a short space of time we understand the father is under pressure at work, father and son are struggling with a messy and disappointing morning together, resentments and frustrations are remembered and build up, and so on.
Thematically there are parallels with the recent novel "The Smack," and it's probably been published with the hope that it will capture the talking point zeitgeist that novel stirred up, but the characters are lot warmer and believable here. And it does deserve the book club circulation and respectability "the Smack" received. There is certainly enough here to keep a book club happy for weeks; is it ever justifiable or understandable to smack a child? When and when not should social services get involved? Can they ever win? What pressures are families under these days? And so on.
There are no easy villains in the book, however you may feel about the Dad's angry smack at the beginning. We don't condone the action, or excuse it, but we wait with trepidation to see what it will unleash. We may share the father's frustration with the social workers but we are not encouraged to see them as easy baddies. We get just as frustrated with the father's spiralling anger and refusal to co-operate when he could have so easily reined this in at points through the story.
The other characters are all vivid portraits, the Mum Tessa, her Mum Grandma Lynne. Even the most minor characters make an impression as if we had really crossed paths with them that day; the overweight jogger who makes the call to social services; the social worker manager who chairs the Child Protection meeting.
The book is funny, compelling, scary but ultimately very redemptive. There is the beginning of real healing at the close, but there is no tidy or pat resolution either.
I absolutely loved it. It is very much both timeless, and a story of our times. That takes a skilled writer indeed.
on 4 August 2011
Picture the scene. Jim, an overtired and overwrought father takes his hyperactive six-year-old son, Billy, to the park. Distracted by his mobile phone, Jim fails to notice Billy wandering away. When he eventually catches up with the child, he is just in time to rescue him from the middle of a busy road. As he pulls Billy from the stream of traffic, Jim is overcome by feelings of panic, anger and relief, and ends up smacking the child. However, the incident is reported to social services by an interfering passer-by, which sets in motion a chain of events which threatens the very fabric of a once close-knit family unit.
Told through the eyes of Billy, the reader is forced to bear witness to a situation which is spiralling dangerously out of control. As Billy innocently narrates, he remains unaware of the seriousness of the situation and fails to comprehend the consequences of his actions. The reader, on the other hand, is painfully aware of the 'bigger story' and feels intensely frustrated at not being able to intervene to save the characters from themselves.
The use of a child protagonist is effective, because the author succeeds in capturing the voice of a child with remarkable authencity. Inevitably, this book will draw comparisons to Emma Donohue's 'Room' and Stephen Kelman's 'Pigeon English' (two recent novels which have successfully 'got inside the head' of a child) but Wakling proves he can hold his own with his contemporaries.
This is a tale of parental love, accountability and the inherent randomness of life. As the story develops, the reader is forced to the uncomfortable realisation that, despite our best efforts to control our environment, we are all at the mercy of circumstance - which sometimes makes for a difficult read. By the end of the book, the reader is left contemplating the fine line between normality and chaos, love and obsession, sanity and insanity.
It is rare that I read a book in one day, but What I Did has achieved this distinction. A nearly tragic story, told from the perspective of a six year old boy, about parenting, child discipline, interfering do-gooder, child protection, and social services.
We all know that children are treated poorly at times and this book strives to uncover the dilemmas that a family can encounter when a child is smacked, in a public place. We also know that social workers have a torrid time, making judgement calls often from third party tip-offs. What I Did gives a splendid insight, but treats this harrowing topic with sympathy - through humour.
Billy is six, bright, loves natural history, and adores his dad. The story follows events as they unfold, but as seen and understood through his young eyes. The author had me laughing out loud in places, when I attributed Billy's childish logic and use of the wrong word at the wrong time, to those same qualities in my children at that age. In fact I spent many a moment deliberately playing with words and going off in tangents whilst they were young. Does this mean I have remained as a six year old, albeit that is half a century ago?
If What I Did were a movie I am sure it would reduce many to tears, but those tears would be both of sadness and joy - at the same time in some cases. As a book I found it held my attention throughout and I really did not want it to end. Highly recommended.
From the synopsis and most other reviewers I think you get an idea of what this book is about so I won't repeat too much of that. This story is told or narrated from the viewpoint of Billy who is six years old, obviously intelligent, he physically and vocally goes off at tangents and adores wildlife and David Attenborough. Billy sees most of his young life as either like the game of chess he is learning (can do/move here, can't do/move there) or like the food chain he's learnt from Attenborough programmes (prey, being chased, hiding etc). Billy's game of running from the prey (his father in the park) and trying to take cover (between parked cars) ends up with a frantic father, Jim, smacking and shouting at Billy for not stopping when told and nearly getting run over. A passer-by intervenes and Jim loses it, shouting and swearing abuse at her. Then starts all the family problems because within hours two ladies from social services are at the door.
Billy is, or was until that point, a normal kid with grazes and bruises on his little body from an active outdoor life but doctors and social services, with the aid of Billy's wonderfully colourful language, decide he is in danger. We, the reader, can see both sides of the story, not just the bruised little boy whose language is misinterpreted so much that a graze from climbing over a wall is seen as father hitting him with a brick, and because we can see both sides I found I felt very sorry for the parents whose home life and marriage were being wrecked by, in the main, a misunderstanding. I'm not belittling this very serious issue but in this instance, because we do see both sides, Billy is not at risk but his father taking the stand he does doesn't help their family's situation.
There are some amazingly funny phrases and situations, mostly from Billy's imaginative mind and nearly right but different meaning words - copulating for co-operating to name but one.
If you have read Room and didn't like it because of the `telling the story by the child' then don't be put off this book. Same style of narration but this is so much better.
on 2 October 2011
I really enjoyed this book. It takes a little while to get used to seeing the world from 6 year-old Billy's perspective but hang in there because not only does that create most of the tension and suspense, you will eventually end up reluctant to put your jaded grown-up eyes back on when you put it down.
The book tackles the area of child abuse in a fresh and thought-provoking way. The boundaries are often far from clear and I found myself really questioning my own parenting, and my attitude towards issues such as smacking. Without wanting to give too much away, I was genuinely unsure what I thought would be the best outcome for Billy's troubled family right up to the end of the story, and I felt sympathy for each of the characters.
Despite the serious subject matter, I would still say this comes across as a warmhearted and optimistic story that's easy to dip in and out of. I really hope Billy has more to tell us when he's grown up a bit.
on 23 August 2011
If you want a book that combines a wonderful writing style, humour on every page and yet has a serious and gripping plot, this is the book for you. Christopher Wakling has a rare talent in creating a story that arouses mixed emotions: deep compassion for the anguish of a well meaning father, laughter at a child's confusion of the adult world and yet suspense as the plot unfolds. I can honestly say that "What I Did" rates as one of the most endearing books I have read and deserves a place on every parent's book shelf.
on 12 October 2011
What I Did is 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.
In Billy, the writer has created a uniquely engaging but at times daringly irritating voice. 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 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 the writer 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.
Whatever you think of this book and its characters, you'll feel it strongly. For me, that's the mark of a good read.