The Bookbag Review by Louise Laurie

The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie reviewed by  Louise Laurie at TheBookbag

This debut novel centres around a young boy called James. His adoptive parents don’t appear to be up to the task of rearing and nurturing such a complex personality (he tests them at every level of his upbringing) and the resultant ending is truly shocking.The reader is introduced to twenty-something married couple Sandra and Kenneth. And yes, they suit their names. They are an average couple with an average intellect leading average lives. They are also desperate to become a family unit. Sandra, right from the word go, appears to be a woman living on her nerves. A smooth-running domestic life is top of her agenda … no matter what. And in that regard, she is insular and narrow-minded. So it didn’t come as a surprise when I read between the lines. She wants a baby but not the mess that comes with it. James, a tiny baby is brought into this brittle home.

He does not settle well. This is an understatement. To help emphasise that point Sandra continued to use her baby book as her bible, and James seemed to defy every anticipated behavioural change. But Sandra also appears unwittingly, I think, to be making a rod for her own back. For instance, she keeps the in-laws at arm’s length when she could really do with an extra pair of hands. She is trying so hard to be a ‘good’ parent that she’s worn out with all the hard work.

Gillespie has some fine comic lines throughout. I’m not surprised to read on the back cover blurb that he’s also an actor. The first part of this novel, deep in suburbia, could easily be put on the stage. As a farce. And centre-stage would be … James. As he grows up and participates in normal childhood activities: going to school, making friends etc there are huge and to a certain extent disturbing elements of his development. Child psychologists differ in their professional prognosis and Sandra and Kenneth’s nerves are taut. They are not sure what to do next.

James is a clever little boy. He constantly blames his imaginary friend for any misdemeanours. He can also play on Sandra’s weak elements of parenting. All of this makes for engrossing reading. I definitely got the sense that something monumental was brewing and that it would involve James. He really is something. Sometimes he can conduct a lovely conversation with grown-ups, completely charming them in the process. At other times he’s very young for his years having to have basic things explained to him in words of one syllable. He is one mixed-up kid. But time and time again, due to Gillespie’s narrative we can see that James’ thought processes are skewed. Gillespie describes many, many awkward episodes, usually involving a fraught Sandra and a keyed-up James. Heart-wrenching and thought-provoking at the same time. During these episodes which are told in great detail, I felt equally for the mother and the son. Both pulling in opposite directions. These episodes are heaped upon the rather insubstantial shoulders of the parents and they are sagging under the weight of it all. Can they continue to cope?

Then the ‘big one’, the one from which no one will ever be the same again, occurs. Gillespie describes it in all its unbelievable detail. And as if that were not enough to digest, through James, we get to hear all about the cuckoo. And, by definition, we see James and try to understand him better. Towards the end of the novel James has numerous conversations with grown-ups and professionals. These detached conversations will stop you in your tracks.

It is a fine piece of writing. Who is right? Who is wrong? A deeply thought-provoking book. Recommended.

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