Inside Books Review by Simon Quicke

book review – The Cuckoo Boy – Grant Gillespie

“’Cuckoos lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. The chicks look really silly. I’ve seen them in books…a big baby bird and a really small one trying to feed it. They have to catch even more worms than ever. The mother bird’s babies die. They get pushed from the nest…Is that murder or is it an accident?’ He was serious, his brow gathered in concentration.”

At the heart of this story is one single question – is someone evil when their environment and lack of love have created someone unable to go through society in a normal way and they kill as a result?
It’s a tough one to answer but Grant Gillespie asks it in a very clever way through the character of James. The surviving child, after one twin has died, he is adopted by a normal, house proud and uptight couple Sandra and Kenneth who cannot have children of their own. Perhaps they are as unable to love and bond with him as he is with them, but as he grows up he does so devoid of love and attention, stuck at home with a mother who increasingly comes to hate and fear him.

Does he deserve to be feared? Well in a way that reminds you of the boy in Gunter Grass’s Tin Drum, it is several years before James starts to show signs of developing normally. He only breaks through the barriers of walking, talking and eating properly when his parents either have their backs turned or at night when they are not physically present.

But the nail in the coffin comes with the development and continuous presence of James’s imaginary friend David. It is David who insults people, causes physical harm and makes James even less willing to engage with the outside world. Even as he starts pre-school and school proper David is always there and the conspiracy between the two friends acts a shield for James and an impenetrable barrier for his parents.

A sister comes along unexpectedly, Amy, but then dies and James and David are suspected of being involved. After all, the boy and his friend had stood by and watched, not calling for help, as their grandfather had a fatal heart attack. With most of the scratches, punches and cuts distributed at school being blamed on James and David the boy reaches 10 with a heavy cloud already surrounding him. To describe him as a ‘difficult child’ would be an understatement.

But it is with the arrival of a new boy in the street – a real David – that things step up and as the imaginary David fights for the attention of James, things take a sinister turn and end – perhaps where they might have done in a worst case scenario – with death, court cases and prison.

Gillespie never makes you pick sides choosing James over his parents or makes it obvious where blame should be apportioned. What he does do is show you just how easy it is for children to be left behind when their parents cannot cope and when these parents are not identified as failing. Throughout the story James is paraded in front of child psychologists and doctors and throughout the mother display signs that she herself is unhinged. But she is allowed to carry on living with a son she cannot stand.

With child crime something that sadly has become more frequent since the high-profile James Bulger case this book is both relevant and provocative. It might not be comfortable reading but as a way of taking a reader on a journey, which good books should do, into the mind of a unloved and desperate child – it delivers.

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