The Observer, Sunday 16 May 2010
A moving tragedy involving children – in suburban England – makes a compelling first novel.
Small-minded, suburban England forms the backdrop for Grant Gillespie’s The Cuckoo Boy. The first book from the rebelliously named imprint To Hell with First Novels (£8), it tells the story of a boy called James, adopted by two well-meaning parents and given everything a normal boy could want. Except that “normal” is the problem. Aided by his imaginary friend David, James wreaks havoc on all his mother’s effort to cultivate a conventional family life.
Through James and David, Gillespie explores the chasm between how children and adults perceive the world, and the devastating consequences of falling through this gap. It’s a parable with echoes of the case of James Bulger – only the families are middle-class, so what goes awry cannot be blamed on violent films or poverty. Although the adult characters are somewhat two-dimensional – James’s mother is obsessed with rearranging cupboards and serving tea and cake – this is more than compensated for by the complexity of James’s inner world. And if the last act is predictable, it’s all the more moving and disturbing for it.
The novel is pregnant with unease. The Cuckoo Boy is a savage indictment of hypocrisy and forced social convention.