It’s May Bank Holiday in the UK today and I spent much of yesterday welded to the first hundred pages of The Cuckoo Boy,the exciting (well I’m very excited) debut from Grant Gillespie and the first novel to be published by the To Hell With First Novels imprint.
You may recall I sardined into the To Hell With shop in London recently for the David Vann reading and nearly died of fulminating hyperthermia. The national grid took a rest that night and just plugged me in instead.
I’m quite likely to have sat up half the night reading The Cuckoo Boy and doubtless praying I haven’t gone out on a limb without checking the strength of the branch because I’ll go doolalley (not pretty) if this book goes turkey-shaped, but once I’ve been to work this morning, I shall be doing a great deal more of the same today.
It’s strangely funny but disturbing too and I can’t quite decide whether to laugh (I have been) refer Family Gardener in to Social Services and call a Case Conference (it’s my job, I probably should) or be very afraid (I’m very nervous) about what I think is about to happen. A fabulous concoction of emotions and observations, lots of nature versus nurture ponderings and a razor-sharp narrative voice to die for, which all adds up to my first truly un-put-downable new novel of the year to date.
I was actually beginning to give up hope.
The Cuckoo Boy ~ Grant Gillespie
I do like a cover that matches my yellow ochre, carmine and teal comfort zone, always pleasing on the eye.
And perhaps I also like to tick the box about handbag capability… if a book’s a go-er can I carry it with me everywhere?
So sadly today those two boxes must remain un-ticked.
The Cuckoo Boy is a very fashionable (and sadly I am not) shade of ecru and taupe and quality paper puts it at twice the weight of Wolf Hall.
Never mind, because if there are books that are going to tick my other boxes (and these may not be everyone’s) then dysfunctional families never fail and nor do babies, along with that old dilemma of nature versus nurture.
Oh yes, and good writing helps.
At this point you might want to make a pot of tea. I’m sorry but there really is no way to compress this post into anything less and heaven help me I’ve tried, but it’s one of my enthusiastic days.
Still nothing else important happening today.
I have been welded to Grant Gillespie’s debut novel on and off (drat sleep…drat work) for three days, and in fact had several moments when I forced an intermission and whipped an ice cream out of the freezer, just to catch my breath and cogitate over what was happening.
Meet the hapless Ken and Sandra Gardner, perhaps the ultimate ecru and taupe couple.
Childless because Ken
‘lived between every factory in the country as a child’
and his mother
‘never once took him to the doctor when he was ill, you know’
(meet Sandra) and who after multiple rejections by adoption agencies eventually find their wish is granted.
“And then there he was before them, this small dark-haired, blue-eyed baby, staring benignly at the heavens in nothing but a nappy.
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…”
Instantly on her guard and confounded into a reflexive and pragmatic coping strategy, Sandra simultaneously fails to hear the crucial shred of information (I won’t spoil ) imparted by the ‘slip of a girl giving them advice’ that may well have explained a little of what was in store.
Meanwhile the baby is taken home and ceremoniously carried into his newly decorated room.
” ‘Yellow! ‘ she announced, as though the child might pipe up with , ‘My colour! How did you know?’ And it was yellow, the walls, the ceiling, the glossy furniture – a veritable assault of buttercup yellow.”
Bless the little chap when he even manages to blend in
“…he became distracted, stopped his sucking and started squirming. He then projectile-vomited a yellowish bile that perfectly matched the decor.”
This of course is Ken’s fault for walking in the room.
The ever so helpful but passive and shadowy, anything-for-a-quiet-life Ken, sidelined to the role of putting the kettle on and making feeds, intermittently comes to the rescue, and, when no name immediately comes to mind, suggests their little interloper is named James after the bottle of Jameson’s whisky he’s just had recourse to sample.
Sandra meanwhile waits for the bolt of maternal love and all that bonding and attachment she’s read about to strike… and she waits…
Doesn’t auger well does it.
James proves to be the oddest of babies and sadly there doesn’t seem to be a health visitor around to spot it, though knowing Sandra, I expect she was one of those that ring and say they don’t want or need to see you thank you very much, so you retreat gracefully, get them to a sign a piece of paper to that effect and concentrate on the other 750 that do.
Down the years I’ve met countless new babies who radiate that aura of having been here before and early in the book I began to wonder if James may be one of them. They purposefully hold your gaze at about two weeks old with a bit of a twinkle in their eyes, they smile very knowingly as if to say ‘It’s OK, I know what this is all about,’ and are way ahead of themselves.
Others play possum.
When things get too busy around them, babies are quite capable of settling into a switched off, seemingly sleepy but still semi-wakeful state… little clenched fists usually give the game away.
So when James finally rouses himself from a year of apparently unsmiling slumber, talks late, walks late, has mysterious fits, throws uncontrollable tantrums for England and invents an imaginary friend called David who most certainly talks to him, I sensed there may be trouble ahead.
By this time you can probably see it, I’m deeply involved with Family Gardner, they are now on my caseload and in need of urgent intervention. I already have James on just about every spectrum possible and I am starting to worry, plus I have Ken and Sandra under observation too.
Call me interfering but by now I’ve stumbled across a completely interactive novel because I really was desperate to go round with my bag of tricks and sort out where James was with his cognitive and social development and get all those referrals done. There were things to be prevented here and it felt like negligence to just turn the pages and read on.
Grant Gillespie is a wizard, an absolute natural at dialogue and inner voice with an omniscient narrator who sifts out all those perceptive angles.
Sandra’s aspirations and misplaced illusions of motherhood… describing her so aptly as a ‘battered moth’… along with her unrealistic expectations of her child.
Then there’s Ken’s acquiescent and hands-off approach to fatherhood in the face of Sandra’s dominance and the couple’s rather unfashionable, hidebound approach to life and discipline.
Plait all this together with a child’s magical thinking and James’s increasing power base and control within the family and amongst his little friends and you have that recipe for family disaster.
As always I spare you the plot details because this all needs to creep up on you as it did on me and those shock moments need to jump out on you as they did on me too. Suffice to say the imaginary David becomes an increasingly real and at times sinister presence, and when a real life David befriends him, James’s loyalties are divided, his insecurities heightened and his vulnerabilities exposed as his inner and outer worlds collide and are thrown into turmoil.
By the time James is ten, his parents are way out of their depth. Ill-equipped to cope even with ‘normal’, yet with no concept of what might pass as ‘normal’ let alone ‘abnormal’, Ken and Sandra founder on the rocks of respectability and class, keeping up appearances at all costs, seeking help only in desperation and very much on their own terms, whilst the little monster wreaks havoc.
By this time I’m thinking someone really should ring Social Services and we really do need a Case Conference.
Yet how interesting that I’m calling James ‘a little monster’ when I pride myself on being able to see the child’s point of view. I even managed it with Lionel Shriver‘s Kevin, (and perhaps Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, though I haven’t read that for years) and there will inevitably be comparisons, but Grant Gillespie does something quite different here.
I don’t remember laughing at Lionel Shriver’s dysfunctional family once, but I couldn’t help myself as I read The Cuckoo Boy. It’s funny and horrific by turns, and even when things take a very serious turn for the terrible, there I was still grinning inanely at Sandra’s protestations as she is caught with her crown of curlers in when there’s an ominous knock at the door, or fumbling round in her handbag for her tissues or her mints at the most inappropriate moments.
It’s a wonderful weaving in of comic relief and a consistency of character portrayal that sees a reader through some really scary and disturbing moments….this is exactly how the Sandra I had come to know would have behaved.
When it comes to passing judgement on anyone as you turn the final page, perhaps expect to go round in circles and everyone will have to reach their own conclusions, this one may keep a reading group going into the early hours. Along the way Grant Gillespie had dotted small clues which helped me reach mine, though in the end I think my heart bled for them all. Everyone a victim.
‘Armed with the wrong set of circumstances, is there anything a child isn’t capable of ? ‘ asks the blurb.
Well, we’ve seen the stories in the press often enough and Grant Gillespie has translated those issues about the key factors in the moral development of the individual, the role and responsibilities of parents, those arguments about the culpability of the child, the age of awareness, of knowing the difference between right and wrong and all the fascinating dilemmas about nature versus nurture, and in such a way that had me transfixed, wondering quite what might happen next and how it would all end.
A brilliant book and one which stood up to the close scrutiny I can’t help but give a book like this, I loved it so not another word more from me,
Well, except that is to say The Cuckoo Boy is published today by To Hell With Publishing, and this is the shop in Bloomsbury, if you’re in London don’t miss it, or their wondrous literary events. Even boring old me lazing down here in the rural idyll feels slightly envious of the new and excitingly innovative literary things they are getting up to in the smoke. So I do wish this novel, the perfectly formed heavyweight firstborn under the To Hell With First Novels imprint, and Grant Gillespie the proud dad, every success.