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The Guardian, Catherine Taylor
‘Enterprising new publisher To Hell With states its intent with Gillespie’s emotionally visceral debut. The spectre of Lionel Shriver’s Kevin is omnipresent, particularly in the black comedy and ambiguous aspects of the tale. Yet this is a confident, impressive work in its own right. First Novels
The Observer, Mary Fitzgerald
‘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. The Cuckoo Boy is a savage indictment of hypocrisy and forced social convention.’ Debut Fiction
Irish Examiner Review, Dan MacCarthy
‘With strong parallels to Golding’s Lord of the Flies which demonstrated the savage nature of humanity detached from civilisation, Gillespie’s superb debut avers that such isolation is possible within our own societies and that the consequences can be tragic. In this case, the mob rules.
Inside Books, Simon Quicke
‘Very clever…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.’
Farm Lane Books Blog Review Jackie@ Farm Lane Books Blog
‘Many episodes are quite chilling. It reminded me of The Fifth Child and classic Gothic ghost stories. It’s especially good for discussions about whether children are born evil or whether it’s the fault of the parents and I was impressed by the way in which the emotions of motherhood were accurately described. It’s gripping and thought provoking, but also contains many of the amusing observations that only young children can get away with. There were so many talking points that I’m sure I could spend hours discussing it – making it a perfect book club choice.’
JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, William Rycroft
‘It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real – never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David.’
The Bookbag, Louise Laurie
‘Fine comic lines throughout. It is a fine piece of writing. Who is right? Who is wrong? A deeply thought-provoking book. Recommended.’
Dovegreyreader.co.uk, Lynne Hatwell
‘Grant Gillespie is a wizard, an absolute natural at dialogue and inner voice with an omniscient narrator who sifts out all those perceptive angles.’
Forbidden Planet International – Best Books of the Year, Doug Wallace
‘To Hell picked up the amazing Grant Gillespie’s debut. The unique thing about this book is that Gillespie is able to step inside the head of the main character, his mother and his father and make you really feel like he was there.’
JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, William Rycroft
‘Therefore next week I’ll be letting you know my thoughts on the first release on their To Hell With First Novels list: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie. (to hell with waiting that long to find out whether it’s any good or not though – it’s really good)’
Dovegreyreader.co.uk, Lynne Hatwell from the first of two articles:
‘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.’
‘This impressive debut is a parable that deconstructs the ‘perfect-family’ model with eerie tension. The spirit of Gillespie’s novel lies in penetrating suburban conformities. Through a mixture of pathos, humour and sparse prose, he deconstructs the model family with care, wrestling with weighty topics like nature over nurture.’
Evie Wyld, author of After the Fire, A Still Small Voice and All The Birds Singing:
‘A dark and elegant story of childhood, The Cuckoo Boy is horrifying and disarmingly funny. A book to keep you awake at night.’
Grant Gillespie recalls being gripped by Animal Farm on Spanish childhood holiday – and almost missing the meeting that changed his life.
MY FIRST BOOK
Grant Gillespie is a novelist, screenwriter and actor. His debut novel, The Cuckoo Boy, was published in 2010. Here, he recalls his father reading Orwell to him on a family holiday and arriving late – and unwashed – to the meeting that changed his life.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
“The first book that really knocked my school socks off was Animal Farm. I know that makes me sound preposterously precocious, but in my defence, strictly speaking I didn’t read it. It was my father who read it to me.
“The memory is very vivid… I was between eight and 10 and my mother, father and I were in Spain – we spent most of my school holidays there because my parents spoke the language and loved the culture. Every day, they’d insist that if I was to be permitted to stay up late then I had to take an afternoon siesta.
“Naturally, I resented this with every atom of my being as the sun was still shining and all the other children seemed to be free to splash about in the sea unfettered, but that was ‘the rule’. In order to settle me off to sleep, my father would read to me and, that particular year, the book on hand was George Orwell’s classic.
“From the moment it began, I was gripped. I remember laughing heartily when the pigeons crapped on the farmers’ heads (though my father had to explain ‘shat’ to me) and weeping when poor Boxer worked until he collapsed and was sent away for slaughter (my father also had to explain ‘knacker’s yard’).
“Of course, all the Political – with a capital P nuances were lost on me, but I had already begun to grasp hierarchical politics – after all, I’d been forced to my bed by my overlord parents. Perhaps it would be true to say that it was from Animal Farm, read to me piecemeal, pre-siesta on a Spanish coast, that I learnt all about ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’. It’s certainly always been a recurrent theme in my own writing and especially in my novel The Cuckoo Boy.“
“Someone once said to me, ‘write three novels and the third one will get published’. I didn’t believe them. I didn’t want to believe them. I knew all I had to do was write one novel. It would then be ripped from my hands by Bloomsbury, Faber or Penguin and delivered up to the eagerly awaiting hands of an erudite, international elite readership.
“While at university, I began what turned out to be a profoundly pretentious novel. Then, on graduating, I wrote a profoundly superficial novel. I followed these with my third novel, The Cuckoo Boy, and that’s the one that was published.
“A publisher, Lucy Owen, invited me to meet her for a coffee. I knew that the publishing house created journals and I assumed Lucy was going to ask me to contribute to one of them in the form of a short story. There was some muddle over what time we were to meet – my fault, of course.
“When I received a call from Lucy saying, ‘Hi, are you lost?’ I had to reply, ‘Not at all, I’m in bed.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, without any discernible judgement, ‘it’s just we were meant to meet an hour ago…’
“Without even contemplating washing, I threw on a crumpled velvet jacket, and half-ran (I never fully run) to Bloomsbury, while licking my hand and trying to flatten my hedge-backwards hair. Lucy was very magnanimous. She told me to ‘breathe’ and ordered me a coffee. I asked if I could breathe outside for a moment – through a cigarette – and she said I could.
“When I finally sat down, Lucy said the unexpected words: ‘I hope you don’t mind but someone passed us your novel and we’d like to publish it.’ Without exaggeration, I practically fell from my chair. I then immediately asked if I could have another cigarette, a wish I was granted. As I paced Woburn Walk, I was dizzy with nicotine and excitement in equal measures.
“It was a real ‘this never happens to me, but it has happened to me’ moment and I’ll never forget it. The months that followed were a dream literally – and literarily – come true. I held the book in my hands, just for a few seconds, the first time, but I was nearly sick in my mouth with joy.
“I had a fabulous launch party where I read alongside my heroes Hanif Kureishi and DBC Pierre. I saw my book in Waterstones, but didn’t linger because it would have felt too pompous. Then I had a flurry of amazing reviews.
“Of course, when the party dies down, you’re left thinking ‘that was it, that was the book, I’ll never be able to write again, I’m a one-trick, one-hit-wonder-pony.’ Then of course that dies down too and you sit down, stare out of the window and start novel number two (aka number four).”
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Title: The Cuckoo Boy
Author: Grant Gillespie
Publisher: To Hell with Publishing
Genre: Literary Fiction
Source: Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin of The Novel Cure
I had heard of “The Cuckoo Boy” by Grant Gillespie through The Novel Cure and it was a part of my reading challenge – The Novel Cure Reading Challenge. It is a cure for adoption and yet somewhere down the line, there is to more to the book than what meets the eye.
It is a story of a dysfunctional couple – Sandra and Kenneth adopting Baby James and how their world spins out of control thereon. There is an imaginary friend David, who enters the scene and very soon there is a real friend David who also enters the picture, thus making the book and the plot, slightly chillier. The book is seen through the eyes of James and his parents. The emotional expectations are almost the centrepiece of this novel. It is about worlds colliding – the real and the imaginary, which makes the book what it is – juicier and scarier.
There are moments in the book, when you look back on your shoulder to see if there is anything going on at all. Grant does not give all the answers to readers. He makes them hang to turn the pages and find out more. It is also in so many ways a whodunit, given the situations and the revenge exacting nature of James. The book is tricky – one starts to wonder if the parents are wrong or the child is wrong, till the puzzle fits itself.
The story is tight and yet sometimes loses out on the overall communication of the plot. Having said that, I would still give it a five, because of the sheer force of writing. The dread surrounding the book is eerie and the atmosphere is only full of macabre. A read for a dark winter’s night, because this is exactly the kind of book you want to take to bed.
The Cuckoo Boy – Grant Gillespie (To Hell With Books)
This book is from one of my favourite publishers of the year, To Hell With Books. They are a small press that is based quite near SMH HQ in Euston and they picked up the amazing Grant Gillespie’s debut and did well with it. It is another ‘disturbed childhood’ book. The unique thing about this book is that Gillespie is able to step inside the head of the main character, his mother and his father and make you really feel like he was there. It is almost as if it was his childhood that went so badly wrong. It is a story of ‘kids being cruel’, parental love gone wrong and a few deaths.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 2010
To Hell With First Novels; €9.70
FICTION has always held up the mob as an example of corrupt society. Over the centuries novels such as Tobias Smollet’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker on to Mark Twain’s Huck Finn and on again to Cormac McCarthy have counter-pointed the amorphous mass with a protagonist who sees things differently.
Gillespie’s debut novel from this quirky publisher relates the extraordinary story of an adopted boy, James, who ends up facing such a mob. His adopted parents, Sandra and Kenneth, bring James into their life at a very young age. But things are terribly wrong from the outset and get complicated when the toddler develops an imaginary friend, David. Nothing too worrying here as many children have these semi- spectral buddies. But James’ is ever-present, almost a projection of another personality. David is wilful and bold where James is careful and needy. This imagined friend stays with James as he grows past puberty.
Meanwhile, Sandra and Kenneth discover to their astonishment that she is pregnant, having thought she was infertile. Mother dotes over the new child; she is everything James isn’t, and she is really ‘hers’. A nightmare ensues with the death of the baby, with James, of course, implicated. Another death follows as the boy’s grandfather chokes on a fish bone. David stands by, watching him die.
David develops friendships with some local children and forms a gang. However, when he is pushed into a pit of rotting pig carcasses he takes horrific revenge torturing one boy to death.
With strong parallels to Golding’s Lord of the Flies which demonstrated the savage nature of humanity detached from civilisation, Gillespie’s superb debut avers that such isolation is possible within our own societies and that the consequences can be tragic. In this case, the mob rules.
This appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Saturday, September 18, 2010
My publisher Lucy Owen at To Hell With e-mailed me this excellent piece (by Dr. Karen Majors – Community Psychology Service, Barking and Dagenham) about imaginary friends, as I had one myself and the subject features heavily in The Cuckoo Boy.
If you had a ‘pretend friend’ too, then she’s looking for people to fill in a questionnaire…
“It used to be thought that children with imaginary friends were in the minority. It has sometimes been assumed that children had imaginary friends because they were lonely and lacked real friends.
Perhaps this is why some parents and others may show concern when a child has an imaginary friend, particularly once they have started school, and older children and adolescents tend to keep their imaginary friends a secret.
Imaginary companions or friends have certainly been a misunderstood phenomenon. There has been surprisingly little research about imaginary friends.
Consequently there has been little information about how many children have imaginary friends, what the imaginary friends are like and why children have them.
Recent research has been providing some surprising answers to some of these questions. Firstly, there is now clear evidence that imaginary friends are a common feature in childhood development.
It is now recognised that imaginary friends are often part of normal development.
A good example comes from the United States, where pre-school children and their parents took part in a 2004 study looking at different aspects of development, including imaginary companions.
The children were then followed up after starting school, when they were aged seven years. The researchers were very surprised to find that 65% of children up to age seven currently or previously had had imaginary friends.
Like other research, imaginary friends which were based on a special toy were included. In a study in the United Kingdom, 1,800 children completed a questionnaire about imaginary friends. Forty six per cent of them reported past or current imaginary friends, including nine per cent of 12-year-olds.
There is a need for more research about which children have imaginary friends and why they have them. We do know that children with imaginary friends are not a homogeneous group.
Certainly, it is now recognised that imaginary friends are often part of normal development. Young children with imaginary friends are often described as sociable, imaginative children who love stories and pretend play. They enjoy playing with friends and at times when friends are not available, they call on their imaginary friends for entertainment.
Children also call on their imaginary friends when they feel upset about something that has happened or about what some one has said to them.
One report indicated that nearly half of UK children have had imaginary friends
Some children will talk to their friend about the problem, others will play with their imaginary friend, which takes their mind off the problem and the unhappy feelings disappear. We also know that some children who have endured traumatic life events may also draw on their imaginary companions for support.
The imaginary friends of older children and adolescents are a much more private affair. Often unknown to parents and others, although a best friend might know about their existence. Older children are aware that parents, friends and others may show disapproval.
As part of my research I interviewed school aged children aged five to eleven years and the parents of the younger children. All the children said that their imaginary friends were important and why they were special to them. I have concluded that imaginary friends are often a very positive feature in a child’s life.
They provide fun, entertainment, adventures and games. They are often good, kind and helpful friends, good at listening and always available. Some imaginary friends are not always co-operative or friendly, this however seems to make them more real and interesting to the child and sometimes helps them to express their feelings when there has been a problem.
This was a small study and we do need more research.
If you are a parent of a child with imaginary friends, or if you are an adult who can remember your imaginary friends, and would like to participate, please email me for a questionnaire at firstname.lastname@example.org .”
Come and spend and evening with Tibor Fischer, author of cult novels Under The Frog and The Thought Gang, and the short story collection Don’t Read This Book if You’re Stupid. Tibor will read some of his favourite passages from his work.
Acting as Tibor’s sidekick, first-time novelist and very likely Tibor’s biggest fan, Grant Gillespie, will be making an appearance.
This is a welcome return to the Festival by Tibor who read from his new novel Good to Be God in our 2008 line-up. Under The Frog, his first novel, was shortlisted for the 1993 Booker Prize. Of Good to Be God, the Catholic Herald said it “is funny and true and (not merely because it’s set in Miami) Fischer’s sunniest novel to date” and The Times, “Fischer at his sharpest – a widely original feelbad philosophical hayride”.
The book club that says To Hell with publishing
by Ben Machell October 23 2010
Lucy Owens, Laurence Johns and Dean Ricketts are an outift with fingers in many literary pies
Ben Machell October 23 2010 12:01AM
Monthly event set up by an independent publisher encourages the submission of manuscripts and it runs a competition.
Once a month at Peter Parker’s Rock’n’Roll Club — a cosy bar underneath one of the many guitar shops on Denmark Street, in Central London — you will find To Hell with the Lighthouse, a popular literary night. To begin with, it’s not an obviously bookish do: a surplus of sticky, silly-looking happy-hour cocktails, a lot of soul music and a young, giddy crowd doesn’t scream “salon”. But over the next couple of hours a quartet of aspiring novelists take to the tiny stage, read from their books and receive warm applause before — they hope — selling a few copies, earning a few drinks or winning themselves a few more thumbs-aloft “likes” on Facebook.
So far, so groovy book night, the kind that has proliferated remarkably over the past 18 months or so. What sets it apart, though, is that the monthly event was set up by an independent publisher. To Hell with Publishing, founded in 2007, is one of the few UK publishers that encourages the submission of unsolicited manuscripts and it now runs a competition, To Hell with Prizes, conceived to uncover the best unpublished novel in the UK, plus a dedicated imprint for first novels, To Hell with First Novels (this year’s inaugural winner was Grant Gillespie’s The Cuckoo Boy).
Finally, as well as its literary night, its publishing label and competition, it also puts out a regular journal, under the (possibly now guessable) banner To Hell with Journals.
For one small outfit to have this many fingers in this many literary pies might seem unusual and, given the uncertain state of UK book publishing, rather reckless. But it is the very state of publishing that prompted Lucy Owen, Laurence Johns, a rare-books dealer, and Dean Ricketts, one of his customers and the owner of a marketing agency, to act in the first place.
“When we decided to start something, it was at that point when everything was being sold three-for-two, everyone was discounting heavily and celebrity culture had taken full hold of the book market,” Ricketts says. “You could feel that something was wrong … in the quality of the new releases, in the amount of new releases … It was clear that fewer risks were being taken in investing in new writers.
“We would talk about how interesting genres and subcultures were always led by small publishing houses and bookshops, but how these had been slowly eroded,” Johns says. “The distinctive voices — where were they going to come from in a generation’s time, when there is no room for independent publishing?”
“Independent” should not be confused with “marginal”, though. Big literary names haven’t been shy in associating themselves with the To Hell with … project: earlier this year David Vann gave a reading at one of its events, also attended by Florence and the Machine’s Florence Welch. Adam Thirlwell, DBC Pierre and Hanif Kureishi have appeared at the To Hell with the Lighthouse night. Their journals have included contributions from Simon Armitage, Richard Milward and Hisham Matar, the first issue put together by the Faber editor Lee Brackstone. Big publishers are paying attention, an unavoidable fact when you consider that the winner of their To Hell with Prizes competition — Bed, by David Whitehouse — was picked up for publishing by Canongate. “There’s been a massive amount of goodwill from the rest of the industry, which I was surprised by,” Johns says. “All the big publishing houses and agencies have said, what can we do to help?”.
Drawing some of their inspiration from existing independent, multifaceted publishers, such as Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s or City Lights in San Francisco, To Hell with Publishing put out its first book, Shorty Loves Wing Wong, in 2006 — a collaboration between the writer Michael Smith and the artist Jim Medway featuring anthropomorphic cats in Hartlepool. “For us, it’s about understanding the writer and knowing what they are trying to do,” Ricketts says. At a lot of publishers you’ll find books being turned down because ‘the climate’s not right for that’, but no one asking whether it’s actually any good.”
“The publishers are going the way of major record labels and playing a numbers game,” Johns says. “What they do is think, right, we’ll get ten writers, give them each a five-grand advance that they can barely live off, and then hopefully one of them will sell enough to cover the cost of the rest of them.”
In contrast, independent publishers and bookshops should be nurturers of talent. “Places like City Lights and Shakespeare and Company in Paris weren’t just about selling books or even selecting good books. Authors went there when they were broke, or needed somewhere to stay, or to get feedback on their work,” says Johns, who runs his own independent bookshop, Amuti23. Has he ever put writers up in the shop?
“Erm, I’ve ended up with people in there overnight,” he grins. “Not always intentionally though.” Johns is leaving his premises at the end of the month and taking the shop online — not, he claims, because the business is struggling, but so that he can devote more time to To Hell with Publishing. “We would like to open a To Hell with bar at some stage, though,” he says.
What he and Ricketts and Owen all maintain is that, despite To Hell with Publishing’s reactionary-sounding name, it is not doing anything particularly groundbreaking. “In a bizarre way, we’re more of a return to traditional publishing. We do all the things a publisher is supposed to, and which were traditionally done: readings, galvanising the audience, searching for new talent,” Johns says. “To Hell with Publishing isn’t supposed to sound negative … we see it as more of a battle cry, or a toast.”
It is not the only publisher doing something new by being old-fashioned. In a small second-floor studio unit in Dalston, East London, Ditto Press Ltd not only publishes its own books, but prints them too. Using a simple stencil-printing process, Bess Freeman and Bruno Bayley, in their mid-twenties, have produced limited but successful runs of art books for the past two years. From January they are set to start publishing and printing novels too.
“The first one we will be doing is the seventh novel by a writer called Duncan Fallowell,” Bayley says. “He was The Spectator’s rock critic at 21, he was going to be the lead singer of Can, and his work appeals to anyone who has an interest in travel or music or sex or drugs. It could quite easily have been put out by a bigger publisher, but he wanted to deal with us.”
Freeman and Bayley explain that though major publishers are letting readers down through lack of choice and variety from above, the fact that “everyone who has ever written something can now make a made-to-order laser-printed book of their own work” means we are also swamped from below. “We are over-saturated with stuff we don’t want to read,” Freeman says, which is where the role of new indy publishers and bookshops as both filters and tastemakers come in. Just like the music industry, Freeman says: “When I was younger I was really into underground music … the rave scene, punk and hardcore. I’d go over to record shops with a crate of records and meet all these people and talk about what was new. I’m doing exactly the same thing now with our books.”
On the other side of London from Dalston, on the slightly more scrubbed-up Kensington Park Road, this approach still holds true. “Selling books has always been about matching readers to titles,” says Felicity Rubinstein, the co-owner of the independent bookshop Lutyens & Rubinstein, which has been open for business for a little more than a year. What sets Rubinstein and her business partner, Sarah Lutyens, apart is that they double as working literary agents and, like Ditto and To Hell With, are also operating in another part of the book-selling process as a reaction against the limitations of big publishers.
“There’s huge frustration about the way books are sold in this country,” she explains. “Our jobs as agents is to hand-sell individual projects with individual editors. But after we’ve placed them with a publisher, we have very little control over how it gets to the readers. To be able to come round the other side and actually put books in people’s hands is fantastically satisfying.”
Similarly demonstrating this kind of flexibility and fluidity is the London Word Festival — founded in 2007 as a young, fun, spiky alternative to traditional literary festivals — which has just commissioned a limited-edition book, Shad Thames, Broken Wharfby Chris McCabe. And there are signs that major publishers understand that there is value in keeping abreast of how people are responding to an uncertain books industry in which new, small thoughtful movers can operate on their own terms. Craig Taylor is the editor of the downloadable literary magazine Five Dials, which covers topics ranging from Sartre’s letters to the 1980s rap group NWA, and is supported by Hamish Hamilton and thus under the auspices of Penguin.
“I don’t think Penguin even knows what it has on its hands with Five Dials … but it serves them well, because people get excited about it,” Taylor says. “We have launch parties in great locations, with people like Jonathan Safran Foer and Grayson Perry involved. And if a young writer doesn’t necessarily have a novel or a full-length non-fiction book, we can still publish one of their essays or stories. We’re doing what magazines have always done — cultivating talent.”
And like To Hell With and Ditto , Taylor thinks that Five Dials may one day start to publish its own books. “We could definitely spin it out that way. If you take the opportunity that this time of upheaval affords, then when the dust settles you can be in a good position,” he says. “Publishing is in such a weird state. Right now we can be anything.”
THE CUCKOO BOY by GRANT GILLESPIE
Oct 14th, 2010 by Jackie at Farm Lane Books Blog
The Cuckoo Boy was recently short listed for the Not the Booker Prize, but it appealed to me from the moment I first heard about it.
The book is about a boy who was adopted at birth. His twin brother is said to have died, but we know next to nothing about his birth family or the reasons for his adoption.
James’ new mother is Sandra. She struggles to cope with him and as he grows he becomes increasingly difficult. As soon as James can talk he tells everyone about his friend, David; the only problem is that no-one else can see this imaginary friend. The two boys collude to commit increasingly evil acts, but there is always a reason for their actions and so the reader is left wondering whether the children are evil or just unlucky.
This book reminded me of The Fifth Child, but it also had elements of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and classic Gothic ghost stories. I loved the way in which we never knew whether David was the ghost of James’ twin brother or just a figment of James’ imagination. Many episodes of the book were quite chilling and so this is the perfect book for Halloween.
I’m always fascinated by books which explore motherhood. The Cuckoo Boy is especially good for discussions about whether children are born evil or whether it is the fault of the parents. The fact that Sandra isn’t James’ biological mother leads to some interesting insights into maternal bonding and I was impressed by the way in which the emotions of motherhood were accurately described.
This book was gripping and thought provoking, but it also contained many of the amusing observations that only young children can get away with. There were so many talking points that I’m sure I could spend hours discussing it – making it a perfect book club choice.
Highly recommended to anyone interested in books about motherhood.
Hxydraxia The Book Collecting Portal
Monday, 06 September 2010 20:03 | Author: Simon Patterson | Grant Gillespie Interview
I caught up with Grant Gillespie recently, author of the well-received ‘The Cuckoo Boy‘, featured by Books To Furnish A Room. He kindly, answered a few questions for me and provides an insight into the inner workings of his writing, with the odd sentence reminiscent of this generation’s great authors – I’ll let you decide who:
HY. What started you on the writing path?
GG. I’ve loved writing stories since I was a child. I remember at school, it was called ‘composition’, which is somewhat dry but lyrical too I suppose. When I was about 17, I won a creative writing competition and was awarded a place on a writing retreat with Helen Dunmore, which was really exciting. I’ve written short stories and novels ever since.
HY. Where did the cuckoo boy idea come from?
GG. My ideas for The Cuckoo Boy accrued over quite a long period. I’ve always enjoyed writing about childhood, because children are so rawly human in their appetite for joy and cruelty. Then the Bulger killing – and the reactions of the press and politicians – had me examining the age old question of whether we are all born ‘innocent’ or whether some people are born ‘evil’. The question at the heart of the book is ‘Given the wrong set of circumstances, what child isn’t capable of murder?’
HY. What was you’re experience of getting published?
GG.I have always written because I love the act of writing and creating, but getting a novel published was really thrilling. The process itself was so rewarding too because To Hell With is such a uniquely noble enterprise. I don’t think that I could have landed in more sympathetic or visionary hands. I’m eternally grateful to them.
HY. Which writers influence you?
GG. It’s hard to say exactly which writers have influenced me because I’m always reading and a real mishmash of genres and eras, so probably all of them in one way or another. My favourite authors though are mainly English and American from the early to mid 20th Century – Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemmingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker. In fact I have lined my writing room with the pages of The Waves by Virginia Woolf. I think that would be my all time favourite.
HY. What are you reading?
GG. I have a few books on the go, which isn’t like me. There’s The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber, Lights out for Wonderland by DBC Pierre and Troubles by J.G Farrell.
HY. Have you signed a lot of your books?
GG. I have signed a fair few books, mainly for my pals.
HY. Which do you prefer, writing or acting?
GG. I love writing and acting in equal measures. The first involves maximum autonomy. I can write wherever I choose and don’t need anyone else’s involvement during the initial process – but then it’s a solitary pursuit, whereas acting requires a director/producer/fellow actors and it goes on and on and on. As I an actor I can’t really generate my own work, but on the plus side it’s very sociable and is all about working with a team of people. For me the two jobs make a very happy marriage. They’re very different animals but there is also a very useful overlap in terms of character development.
HY. What are you currently working on?
GG. I’m currently on the second draft of a novel called There is the Sea, about tsunamis, synaesthesia, suicide and talking doors…
HY. What’s next?
GG. Next is hopefully some more acting work, then perhaps a modern day ghost story?
Books To Furnish A Room
Hydraxia: Monday, 02 August 2010 20:25 Author: Simon Patterson
The longlist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize will be announced this week. There is usually a modest boost to prices for longlisted novels, with a more substantial boost when the shortlisted books are announced. The increasing trend towards simultaneous hardcover and paperback releases (with small print runs of the former), along with a range of special/limited editions of leading novels makes collecting the Booker Prize increasingly difficult. Nonetheless, it remains a worthwhile challenge and the shortlisted books over the years provide a useful benchmark of trends in literary fiction. Spotting the winner at an early stage opens the opportunity to a significant profit in some years if you wish to sell. Wolf Hall, the winner from 2009, has sold for several hundred pounds in the first edition, although among the shortlisted novels The Glass House seems more uncommon. Of the books I have read this year, I think that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Even the Dogs are strong candidates. However, as always there are other contenders!
My book of the week for this week is a first novel issued in paperback only – The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie. This is the first novel issued by To Hell with Publishing. The print run was 1000 copies, and it has now been reprinted. The book has been praised highly by a number of bloggers, and picked up reasonable reviews in the Guardian and Observer. Several reviewers have commented on the similarity of the theme to “We need to talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver, but the book has a different tone. It’s unlikely to be a strong candidate for the prize, but perhaps has an outside chance of making the longlist and it certainly seems worthwhile picking up a copy if you can find one to read carefully and set aside for the long term.
The Cuckoo Boy By Grant Gillespie
This impressive debut is a parable that deconstructs the ‘perfect-family’ model with eerie tension
Published by To Hell With Publishing
Grant Gillespie’s debut novel The Cuckoo Boy starts quietly, slowly and awkwardly, as a repressed suburban couple adopt young James and crumble under the weight of raising a boy they feel no connection to and ultimately don’t understand. Steeped in the perfect idea of what parents should be, they try to mould the obstinate child into their own image, failing to ever engage him.
As he grows older, he starts to rely entirely on an imaginary friend called David. Then suddenly, about halfway through the novel snaps into shocking heart-wrenching territory as James meets the real life counterpart of his imaginary friend who helps to draw him out of himself and lead a more sociable life. This leads to an act of revenge that outs James as ‘not normal’ crushing the public perception as his not-so everyday parents.
The spirit of Gillespie’s novel lies in penetrating suburban conformities. Through a mixture of pathos, humour and sparse prose, he deconstructs the model family with care, wrestling with weighty topics like nature over nurture. His writing is confident and tinged with sadness for the poor Gardners, misguided in their dysfunctional needs. They never wanted James; they just wanted the idea of him, and if he couldn’t grow up to be the boy they wanted, well, where would he turn.
It’s a strange and interesting parable, bubbling away, and as the first novel to be published on the To Hell with Publishing imprint, signals a promising direction for independent publishers.
Cuckoo! Cuckoo! By OLIVIA JUDSON
A few weeks ago, I was walking through a wood in the English countryside when I heard the unmistakable call of the cuckoo. For some reason, it caused me to fall into a reverie, and as I walked, I began to meditate on that iconic bird and what it represents.
The European cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) is, famously, a “brood parasite”: the female lays her eggs in other birds’ nests. Typical victims are small birds like reed warblers and wagtails. When the young cuckoo hatches, its first act is to dispose of any other eggs: it heaves them out of the nest, leaving itself as the sole occupant.
What happens next is peculiar. The foster parents don’t appear to notice they are rearing a monster. Instead, they work hard to satisfy the demands of the chick, even though it sometimes becomes so large that it no longer fits inside the nest, and has to sit on top. It’s one of the oddest sights in nature.
(Roger Wilmshurst/Photo Researchers, Inc.A reed warbler brings food to a young cuckoo that hatched in the warbler’s nest, an example of brood parasitism.)
The cuckoo habit has evolved several times. It’s found in species as diverse as cowbirds, indigobirds, honeyguides and even a species of South American duck.
(Actually, brood parasitism can also occur within a species — geese sometimes slip an egg into a neighbor’s nest, as do coots and starlings. Nor is it restricted to birds — fish and insects sometimes foist the rearing of their offspring onto others. But for the rest of this article, I want to focus on the birds that are “professional” brood parasites — the ones that, like the cuckoo, never build nests, and always palm their offspring onto another species.)
Among professional brood parasites, different species have different levels of destructiveness. The duck, for example, is rather charming: it doesn’t destroy any eggs nor enslave its foster parents. All it needs is a bit of warmth for the egg to incubate. The day the duckling hatches, it paddles off into the world, fending for itself right from the get-go. It’s one of the planet’s most independent young birds.
A honeyguide chick, in contrast, is one of the most vicious. It hatches with special hooks on its beak; it uses these to destroy any eggs, or kill any nestlings, that it finds in the nest. (The hooks disappear when the chick is about 14 days old.) Meanwhile, parasitic cowbird chicks don’t usually attack the other chicks in the nest, but they do compete with them for food.
One reason such birds are interesting is that they allow us to watch evolution in action. In general, the stronger the threat from the cuckoo (or honeyguide or whatever), the stronger the selection on the hosts to spot intruders — and the stronger the pressure on the cuckoo to evolve to be undetectable.
Which is why the eggs of these birds often bear a close resemblance to the eggs of those they victimize. Among European cuckoos, for example, individual females specialize on particular species — so the egg of a cuckoo that preys on great reed warblers looks different from the egg of a cuckoo that preys on redstarts, which in turn looks different from the egg of a wagtail-specialist. Yet each egg looks remarkably like the host egg, down to the color of the shell and the pattern of any splotches. The resemblance is particularly strong in species where the host is prone to rejecting cuckoo eggs.
Assessing the degree of egg resemblance is tricky, for birds don’t see the world as we do: they see more colors. Therefore, what looks like a good match to us may not look like a good match to the bird; and vice versa. Fortunately, it’s now possible to measure egg colors and patterns with machines, not humans — and such measurements do, by and large, show that there really is a good match.
This raises a question. If cuckoo eggs evolve to look so similar — why don’t the chicks? Especially as, in species of brood parasite like the indigobirds, the young look much more like the “real” chicks.
The obvious answer is sinister. As far as birds like reed warblers are concerned, it may be that cuckoo chicks do resemble their own offspring. That is, the cuckoo taps into the hosts’ sensory world: it has a brightly colored open mouth, and it sounds like an entire brood of extremely hungry warbler chicks. (To compensate for the fact that there’s only one mouth, not the usual four, the cuckoo begs much more noisily than reed warbler chicks would.) Apparently, this is enough to stimulate the little birds to care for it.
Which makes me wonder: what are we missing? Like the birds — like any organism — our sensory system defines the way we perceive and interact with the world, and it is limited in important ways. As I said earlier, our sense of color is not as vivid as that of most birds. As mammals go, our sense of smell is poor. We hear a limited range of sounds: unaided, we cannot hear much of the conversations of elephants, or of bats.
True, we have invented machines to detect many aspects of the world that are invisible to us, but most of these are kept in fancy laboratories and are not available for daily life. If another organism, a dog say, were watching us, what “obvious” problems would they spot that we are oblivious to? (My guess is that dogs often have moments when they look at us and wonder, “Why don’t they notice?” For dogs are often able to smell things about us that we cannot. Many cancers, for example, change the scent of our urine and our breath. Without special machines, we cannot detect this — but dogs can.)
And in a more metaphorical way, the sight of the cuckoo chick makes me wonder what we miss by our routine habits of thought. To what extent do our preconceived notions narrow our perception of the planet, and ourselves?
Louise Laurie, The Bookbag, 1/06/10:
Fine comic lines throughout […] It is a fine piece of writing. Who is right? Who is wrong? A deeply thought-provoking book. Recommended. The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie
Catherine Taylor, The Guardian, 29/05/10:
Enterprising new publisher To Hell With states its intent with Gillespie’s emotionally visceral debut.[…] The spectre of Lionel Shriver’s Kevin is omnipresent, particularly in the black comedy and ambiguous aspects of the tale. Yet this is a confident, impressive work in its own right. First Novels
Simon Quicke, Inside Books, 29/05/10:
Very clever…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. Thoughts at the halfway point of The Cuckoo BoyAuthor interview – Grant Gillespie author of The Cuckoo Boy Book Review – The Cuckoo Boy – Grant Gillespie
Mary Fitzgerald, The Observer, 16/05/10:
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. […] The Cuckoo Boy is a savage indictment of hypocrisy and forced social convention. Debut Fiction
William Rycroft, JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, 12/05/10:
It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real – never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David. ‘the invisible enemy’
The Sleep Club (guest post), 11/05/10: My personal fix, my crutch, my panacea – is sleep. Where some people are heavy drinkers, I’m a heavy sleeper. And I love it. If narcolepsy were contagious I’d dry hump a dyssomniac.Confessions of a Sleep Addict by Grant Gillespie
writerspet.wordpress.com (interview), 10/05/10:
The whole thing is about mismatches and misunderstandings, and it filled me simultaneously with laughter and a deep knot of dread all the way through. Now over to Grant, on Ayn Rand, thinking like a child, and trying not to be too clever (it’s tough). Writer’s Questions – Grant Gillespie
Lynne Hatwell, Dovegreyreader.co.uk, 6/05/10:
Grant Gillespie is a wizard, an absolute natural at dialogue and inner voice with an omniscient narrator who sifts out all those perceptive angles. The Cuckoo Boy ~ Grant Gillespie
Booktrust (guest post), 5/05/10:
Grant Gillespie, debut author of To Hell with Publishing’s first book The Cuckoo Boy, writes beautifully about imagined dreamscapes and viewing the adult world with a child’s eyes. We asked him to guest-blog about his favourite author… Lewis Carroll. Authors we love … by Grant Gillespie
William Rycroft, JustWilliamsLuck.blogspot.com, 4/05/10:
Therefore next week I’ll be letting you know my thoughts on the first release on their To Hell With First Novels list: The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie. (to hell with waiting that long to find out whether it’s any good or not though – it’s really good) To Hell with…Blogging
Lynne Hatwell, Dovegreyreader.co.uk, 3/05/10:
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. Stop all the reading clocks… The Cuckoo Boy is here
Evie Wyld, author of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize-winning After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, quote for the jacket:
A dark and elegant story of childhood, The Cuckoo Boy is horrifying and disarmingly funny. A book to keep you awake at night.
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.
“’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.”
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.
FRIDAY, MAY 28, 2010
Author interview by Simon Quicke with Grant Gillespie author of
The Cuckoo Boy
Having finished The Cuckoo Boy, written by Grant Gillespie, it seemed like a good idea to interview Grant to find out what inspired him to write the book and what he has planned next.
Thanks Grant for taking the time to reply to my questions and a full review of the The Cuckoo Boy will be posted tomorrow.
Q. Where did the idea for this story come from? In some ways it reminded me of the James Bulger case in terms of the court scenes and the media reaction to James. Where did the inspiration come from?
Part of my inspiration for the novel was the Bulger case, and in particular in the responses of the public and the politicians. I was really shocked to read that John Major decreed that “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less.” When we’re vindicated in turning those who have committed crimes into ‘the other’, (eg the bad seed, the little monster, the worthless, the freaks) then we are also given permission to avoid looking at ourselves and our society. I certainly don’t profess to have any answers, but in The Cuckoo Boy I wanted to pose the question: ‘Given the wrong set of circumstances, what child isn’t capable of violence?’
Q. In places the book makes quite uncomfortable reading were there times when it was difficult to write, particularly scenes like the torture of David in the woods?
It sounds like a cliché but I find that once I am underway with a novel the characters take on a life of their own and they dictate what happens next. I tend to have an arc in place but then the narrative often veers off into new areas, and I tend to let that happen, especially in the first draft. Some people who’ve read the book have said it reads like a painfully slow car crash, and I think that that may be because, like the reader, I too was reluctant to reach and deal with the parts which were tragic and distressing.
Q. I found it almost impossible to sympathise with James but as the book progressed my dislike of his mother grew in tandem with sympathy for Kenneth. Were you trying to accentuate the fact that Sandra was as damaged as the son?
To my mind, and of course everyone responds differently to the writing, all three members of the family are – to a greater or a lesser degree – victims of their own natures and the limiting domain that they inhabit. I believe (or I’d like to believe) that if Sandra had been better equipped, if Kenneth had been stronger or if James had been raised by more receptive people, then most of the incidents in the book could have been avoided.
Q. David the imaginary friend is quite disconcerting where did the idea from him come from and although its an inevitable question did you have one yourself when you were a child?
I did have an imaginary friend, also called David, in fact. And he was very, very real to me. Likewise, in the book, David is very real to James, but I also wanted to have David as an ambiguous figure. He could be James’ dead twin, he could be his negative side, or he could just be a child’s imaginative plaything. That’s all open to interpretation. I made decisions in my head, but I wanted to leave it vague in the story.
Q. How long did it take to write the book and how do you write – a computer or paper and pen person – and how does it feel to have got to the end and now seeing it in print?
The Cuckoo Boy took me about a year to write, but the editing and publishing process took much longer. More and more I tend to write on the computer (now I have a laptop) but in the past I would write the first draft on paper in pencil and then the second draft as I typed it up.
I can’t begin to tell you how exciting it is to have the book in print. To be honest I write because I love to write. On one level I never thought that my writing would see the light of day – rather than the dark of drawer – so it’s thrilling that it’s out there. I’m also an actor and as an actor you can’t generate your own work, you need other actors and directors and producers etc. Writing is a way for me to keep creative in an autonomous way.
Q. What next Grant? Is James a character that you might turn to again in your writing?
It’s funny you should ask, but I did research and start a sequel to The Cuckoo Boy, with James in incarceration, but then I thought that actually James will never be allowed to grow up. He is a child frozen in time.
My next novel, which is nearly completed in its first draft, is called There is the Sea and is about suicide, tsunamis and synesthesia…
by Grant Gillespie (To Hell With First Novels, £8)
Catherine Taylor, The Guardian,Saturday 29 May 2010
Enterprising new publisher To Hell With . . . states its intent with Gillespie’s emotionally visceral debut. James, the Cuckoo Boy of the title, is adopted by a childless, uptight suburban couple, Sandra and Kenneth. From the start the baby does not respond, preferring instead to zone out in sleep. Gradually, as he develops and chooses in his own time to walk and talk, he blocks his parents out by referring constantly to an invisible friend, David. Treated at first with amused tolerance, David proves to be a mendacious doppelganger. The appearance of a real-life David, by contrast gentle and amiable, creates a diabolical conflict for James, as does the unexpected arrival of a sister. The spectre of Lionel Shriver’s Kevin is omnipresent, particularly in the black comedy and ambiguous aspects of the tale. Yet this is a confident, impressive work in its own right.
The Confessions of a Sleep Addict
By Grant Gillespie
Tuesday 11th May, 2010
People are addicts. Even those who turn down everything you offer because of their self-diagnosed ‘addictive personalities’. ‘I’d love to have a drink/ coffee/ smoke, but I can’t,’ they insist, ‘if I had one I’d never stop!’ Don’t be fooled, their ‘dependence’ is on ruining perfectly promising dinner parties. Most of us are more game however and grab whatever’s on offer only to turn round one day and discover – in true 39 Steps style – that we’re handcuffed to a habit. Then we’re obliged to take another 12 Steps in an attempt to unshackle ourselves.
Our addiction options – in the 21st Century fashion – are of course endless: drugs of all degrees, drinks of all flavours, even homeopathy and healthy eating can become an unhealthy obsession. I won’t pretend that I haven’t dabbled in them all – except exercise – and I only ever refused a drink once. I’d misheard the question. But I can safely say that I’m not addicted to anything obvious. My personal fix, my crutch, my panacea – is sleep. Where some people are heavy drinkers, I’m a heavy sleeper. And I love it. If narcolepsy were contagious I’d dry hump a dyssomniac.
When people ask me what I do for a living, invariably I shuffle my feet and admit ‘I do like to take a lot of sleep.’ I ‘take’ sleep like other people take vitamins, in big handfuls. Twelve hours a night (or day) is good, but thirteen plus is better. My unrivalled personal-best in terms of staying-power was on New Year’s Day this year, when I slept for thirty-three hours. Admittedly I did wake up twice during that period for a pee and a yoghurt, but hey, I think even a sleep purist wouldn’t penalize me for that.
I’m not lazy though, not at all. I’m actually a busy sleeper. I laugh, and chat and do lots of activities in my sleep. When I’ve dabbled in day jobs I’ve even been known to work on into my nights. In my twenties I was a world-weary shop assistant in Calvin Klein, spending my days re-tidying clothes rails and rearranging jumpers and my long-term girlfriend would be regularly woken up by me folding her up ready to go back on a shelf.
Then, when I took a job in an office, she’d watch me diligently using our horizontal bedroom blinds as a filing cabinet. It didn’t stop here. When we moved in together – she was a glutton for a somnambulist’s punishment – I spent two days taking boxes of books up the stairs. That night I awoke to the sound of the front door clicking closed behind me and I found myself naked in the communal hallway. Clearly I was off to collect another box, which I was still obliged to do – an empty one from the pavement, which I wore to cover my modesty. I then banged on our door, praying that my new neighbours didn’t respond before my girlfriend. And when eventually she did wake up, and let me in, with the true defensiveness of a sleepwalker I pretended that standing in a hall wearing a box was a perfectly normal activity for four o’clock on a Wednesday morning.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Look, do you mind if I come in?’
Of course my sleep addiction has also got me into trouble of a different kind. I have issues with the term ‘oversleeping’ as it has negative connotations. But, as it’s accepted into common parlance, I’ve used the phrase ‘I’m sorry I overslept’ more times than I can remember. I missed so many lectures at university that I resorted to placing a bucket of water by my bed. The idea was that I use it to threaten myself with when my alarm went off. ‘Either get up, or dunk your head!’ Inevitably I did neither and dropped back off to sleep. Two girls in my halls of residence kindly volunteered to bang on my door every morning and wake me up, but my body betrayed me. ‘I’m, up I’m dressed. Set off I’ll catch you up!’ I’d hollar, whilst still fast asleep, until one day they got the cleaner to let them in and saw me shouting from under the covers.
I ran a bookshop for a while in Glasgow and often slept through opening up. One time I foolishly answered the phone, whilst still under the influence.
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in the shop!’
‘I’m calling you at home!’
That’s a wake up call.
To combat this perpetual sleeping through appointments I bought a clock that simulated sunrise. I thought that it was a SAD lamp too and that maybe my oversleeping was a winter thing. It turned out not to be a SAD lamp and was really just a hugely expensive digital watch with a bulb attached. Predictably enough it failed to rouse me, so I still rely on several alarm clocks too far out of reach to hit the snooze button in my sleep.
The latest invention I’ve heard of that might help is an ‘app’ on the iPhone (Ed: read all about Sleep Cycle here.). Apparently it monitors your sleeping pattern and then wakes you when you are in the dreaming cycle, which is the lightest mode of sleep. I’m not convinced I even do light sleep, but it’s worth a try. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see it as a problem as such, I happen to like my beauty sleep and I could give up when ever I wanted, man, I just have to stay awake long for long enough to try.
A professional actor and writer who lives in Soho, London.
His first novel, The Cuckoo Boy, was published by To Hell with Publishing on May 6th, 2010.
The Cuckoo Boy charts the quiet destruction a suburban childhood might sometimes, unexpectedly, wreak.
Armed with the wrong set of circumstances, is there anything a child isn’t capable of?
James has landed in the wrong nest. Adopted by well-meaning parents who are anxious to conform, he enters a family where any wrong can be righted by a half-hearted trip to church, cake, vacuuming or, if all else fails, denial. Stifled by shepherd’s pie and scones, James’ imagination comes to the rescue in the form of David, an invisible friend, conspirator and agitator. Then James meets a real life David whose gentle spirit soothes the turbulent and unsettling effects of his make-believe world. But as James becomes more sociable he also becomes more vulnerable.
Once hurt, his revenge leads to an act which shocks his community and breaks the hearts of his parents.
Grant Gillespie’s beautifully observed and disturbing parable shows just how destructive normal can be.
You can buy Grant Gillespie’s fabulous new book at the Book Depository.
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.
WEDNESDAY, 12 MAY 2010
The Cuckoo Boy
by Grant Gillespie
To Hell With Publishing featured in a post last week, which is worth a look if you haven’t seen it already, an independent publisher with a genuinely interesting take on the industry. Their new list is To Hell With First Novels, an imprint designed to nurture new talent through the process of delivering their debut work. First of the firsts is this dark novel from actor Grant Gillespie. Now, I have a confession to make: I know Grant. In fact we’re represented by the same agency and have regularly made fools of ourselves at various commercial castings in the quest to put food on the table. This means that receiving, reading and reviewing this book could have been problematic. Luckily I had no idea about his writing until I saw his name in an email, so had no preconceptions or investment in it. I also strive hard to maintain my integrity whilst reviewing, there doesn’t seem any point to me in writing puffed-up reviews, which actually means that my only worry was what to do if I didn’t like it, having said I would write a review. Worry not, there shall be no vague statements or faint praise here. The Cuckoo Boy is an amazingly assured debut that tackles some big themes, peopled by ambiguous characters and, most importantly, a distinctive creativity from first page to last.
Kenneth and Sandra Gardner have seen several years of their married life elapse and find themselves in their late twenties, any attempt to have children so far fruitless. A trip to the doctor confirms the worst and they realise that adoption will be the only way to bring a child into their life. After a frustrating period of rejections and technicalities they finally receive the call they have been waiting for and the moment that Sandra in particular has envisaged for such a long time.
“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. Fear was closer to the sensation she was feeling, fear mixed with an unwanted wave of revulsion. Nor did he smile back at the brave upturning of her mouth. He looked through her, entirely unmoved.”
Parents worry about transferring any of their anxieties onto their infant children and Sandra immediately transfers hers onto us. Thrown by the disappointment of her first meeting she overcompensates, relegating Ken to the background whilst she attempts to bond with her child, his only real contribution the child’s name, James, rather inauspiciously taken from the bottle of whiskey he has been driven to. Immediately it seems that James is no ordinary child. Gillespie doesn’t achieve this with any theatrics but through a series of unsettling details that play on the anxiety of any new parent who asks themselves all the time during their child’s development, ‘is that normal?’ Their new baby seems to sleep for his entire first year, hardly ever crying, he doesn’t walk until two and a half, and takes tantrums and the terrible twos to a whole new level, one incident leading to an accident that leaves him with his head split open and a scar that ‘scored his side-parting like chalk’
“Sandra continually tried to smooth his hair over it, but it stubbornly refused to be covered up, And a sudden, sideways jerk of James’s head was all it took to reveal the skeleton finger scar, which pointed to his parents, reminding them of how they’d failed him.”
The opening section of the book will be an unsettling read for any parent, a brilliantly observed study of two inexperienced and ill-suited parents struggling to cope with the demands of a child who, despite the assurances of the adoption authorities, seems to be far from normal. This isn’t so much an examination of nurture versus nature (although there are elements of that), and nor is James overtly different, but slowly Gillespie builds up the events that build a larger and larger gap between parent and child.
“James’s parents had unwittingly succeeded in arming him both physically and verbally. He was fearless, despite his small frame, and cunning to boot. When they scolded him he took to laughing. Only now they were reluctant to raise a hand to him for fear of him raising his to another. They had no emotional or retributive hold whatsoever. whenever they came too close he simply spat out, ‘You can’t touch me, you’re not my parents,’ and they were crushed like invertebrates.”
One feature of childhood brilliantly perverted is the imaginary friend. James’s first word is an attempt to say David, the boy who seems to be his constant companion as he grows older, and the one feature that Ken and Sandra truly struggle to deal with. Used as a confidante, comfort, excuse and primarily a weapon, David takes on an almost supernatural tinge when we know that James was a twin, his brother having died before birth. But this is a fine psychological study rather than a spine-chilling horror and the relationship between James and David is vividly created, David as real a character as any other and indulged as such by the Gardner’s on the advice of a psychologist. It would be easy to expect an actor to be good at writing dialogue or creating a narrative voice (in fact most actors are terrible at improvising dialogue that sounds real – never underestimate the skills of the playwright!) but Gillespie deserves genuine credit for what he achieves with all his cast and particularly with James and David.
From the early stages there is a danger about James, a hint of what he might be capable of, so that when Sandra and Kenneth find themselves blessed by the gift they thought a doctor had taken away from them years before, the reader feels immediately terrified by what this might mean for the family. The impending arrival is also a chance to show the subtle psychological similarities between Sandra and James. Many women when pregnant give a name to their unborn child, sometimes totally unconnected to what they might be thinking of as a potential name for when they are born, a secret bond between the two of them before the baby comes into the world.
“Amy was her secret name. It was for their private mother-daughter chats. And now, suddenly, David – the unseen – did not seem so ridiculous. Sandra had her very own concealed child and she too felt the urge to talk to her, encourage her, collude with her and cut out the rest of the world.”
A lot happens in this book as we see James (and David) develop into a young boy but I don’t want to spoil any of that for you. Each event leads compellingly onto the next, the pace propulsive so that however much you may not want to know what happens next you can’t help but turn the page to find out. The writing is filled with neat descriptions of character and behaviour. Grandad Gordon sits ‘like a hippo in his exfoliating armchair, while his oxpecker wife hopped about him, preening him, cleaning him, taking what nourishment she could from him.’ Sandra under the strain of bringing up James on her own for the most part has to ‘ask him to play in his room for a while, so that she could gather up her scattered thoughts like a deck of cards and try to regroup them in their proper numerical order.’ We are all too familiar with the hysterical response shown by the media to children who exhibit behaviour that strays from the norm and towards violence in particular. By taking a detailed look at the slow, steady development of one particular child Gillespie has provided a cultural response that highlights both our own culpability and the difficulty of knowing how much damage may have been done to someone before there’s a chance to help them. Like the cuckoo that lays its eggs in other bird’s nests it’s possible that James just landed in the wrong one. Gillespie on the other hand seems to have landed in just the right one at To Hell With… A cracking début novel, which for all the seriousness I have mentioned here also has a wicked vein of humour running through it, given a quality production and I hope, after a few more positive reviews appear, a wide readership.
You can hear more about the book from the author himself in this interview.
Posted by William Rycroft at 07:00
dovegreyreader, 12 May 2010 11:46
Great review William, and really good to read another take on this amazing book. I’m still lingering in the nature/nurture territory and that first year of James’s life.
Such a crucial stage for a baby and why did he seem to sleep for most of it?
What was going on with his parents?
Is that when the most damage was done to James and most of it unspoken? Boys are particularly susceptible to the disinterestdness of their mothers at this age and it all had me wondering.
It’s a book that I will think about and debate with myself for months I feel sure.
May 10, 2010 by Lija
The Cuckoo Boy by Grant Gillespie is published by To Hell with Publishing, who I sorta work for (which I briefly talked about here). It’s a little tricky to really discuss the book when I feel like it’s… not my baby, but like I’m the au pair who appeared on the scene and just tried not to screw the kid up.
By the by, this book is all about just that. How a parent’s misconceptions and foibles can be hilarious in isolation, but can turn disastrous when they’re pressed upon the wrong kind of child. The whole thing is about mismatches and misunderstandings, and it filled me simultaneously with laughter and a deep knot of dread all the way through.
That’s all I’m going to say about the book itself – now over to Grant, on Ayn Rand, thinking like a child, and trying not to be too clever (it’s tough).
What was your favourite book growing up?
Alice in Wonderland. You can see why in the guest post I wrote for Booktrust.
I think we’ve all identified with a fictional character – which one have you secretly (or not so secretly) thought you resembled?
I identified with – or rather I aspired to be identified as – Howard Roark in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. This is embarrassing on two levels, firstly because the book is seen to be a vindication of everything right-wing and secondly because Roark is a strapping, heroic figure (which will never be said about me). As an actor I always knew that if I was asked to appear in the film version, I would be cast as the people-pleasing Peter Keating, rather than the fiercely uncompromising Roark. But it was Roark I admired. He is a man who would rather sink into obscurity, so long as he remained true to his integrity and vision.
Here’s the part where you get to shout about another book you’ve read recently that you love:
Well I have no doubts about who I’d like to praise, and that’s Evie Wyld. I first heard her read from her novel After the Fire a Still Small Voice at the To Hell With Christmas party, and I was absolutely transported. In fact I told her after her reading that when I grew up (in terms of talent, not age, I fancy she’s younger than me) I wanted to write just like her. Her novel is poetic (without a trace of pretension), poignant (without slipping once into sentimentality) and deeply compelling (whilst still being literary). It’s a beautiful story about generations of miscommunication. The main protagonists are all male too, and I take my hat off to her rendering of masculine inarticulacy. I can’t recommend it enough. She’s read my book now too and has been very complimentary so it’s a bit of a literary love-in.
You started off participating in writing groups for fun, yes? Do you treat the writing process much differently now that you’ve gone pro?
In truth I’ve obsessively written fiction since I was a very young thing and when I was 17 won a place on a writers retreat with the wonderful Helen Dunmore. I started with short stories, which grew longer and longer until I wrote my first novel whilst at university, (it’s in a drawer with my post university novel). Then, over a year ago now, a writer friend of mine Jon Digby, suggested meeting up with four other wordsmiths, (Soho Scribblers). Since then we’ve met once every couple of weeks in my Soho pad, when two of us share our latest chapters and the others give feedback. Though we all write in different styles and genres our responses are generally the same, and if five people tell you something is or isn’t working it’s easy to take their word for it.
As a professional actor, there are often dry periods and so for me writing is a perfect second string. You can hole up and keep creative without the need for a director or a producer. But since I have two vocations, I’m not one of those people who have a routine. I wish I had the discipline to write every morning between 7 and 9, but I’m night owl by nature, so mornings are rarely seen and are never constructive. So I tend to be a sporadic, piece-meal writer. I might write pretty solidly for three days, then do nothing for another three, but I always come back to the page sooner or later. It’s a compulsion.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Goodness, there’s so much. I often over-gild the lily when I write, plus I pepper my writing with lazy idioms (like gilding the lily). The bits I like the most are often the most awful. A dear friend of mine Lucy Briers read the first draft of The Cuckoo Boy and gave me tough love by saying things like:’You see this section here? Well I can see you sitting at you’re desk thinking, ‘Oh that’s terribly clever’. Well it’s not, it’s smug. You’re lifting me out of the narrative to admire the author! And this bit, I know you think it’s funny, but it’s not. Make it funnier or just cut it.’ I owe her a lot, and can still hear her on my shoulder when I get carried away with myself.
ABOUT THE CUCKOO BOY
Much of The Cuckoo Boy is seen from a child’s point of view. How did you manage the task of thinking like a kid again?
Being an actor means that you never really let go of that imaginative capacity to think like a child. In fact I played Moth in Loves Labours Lost and so studied the director’s son for that. Plus I’m a massive people watcher and as children are the most uninhibited, they’re also the most entertaining.
The repressed mother, Sandra, is unintentionally hilarious, and one of the stand-outs of the whole book. Did you make a conscious decision to make humour a key element of the story?
Yes, I think that if you’re dealing with something dark, a reader needs some relief. Otherwise you just feel like you’re being hammered into the earth. Perhaps some people will think that my treatment of the mother is too harsh, but when I laugh at a character it generally means that I like them.
Can you explain a bit more about the boy cherub image that eventually led to the book’s cover?
I have this Victorian photograph of a boy with angel wings bound to his torso and I’ve always been fascinated by the image. It captured that Victorian obsession with childhood innocence, but then the wings – which were so clearly tied to him – implied that these Victorian ideas were simply imposed on children by adults. I took the picture to Laurence and Lucy at To Hell and they loved it but they thought that to use the original image was not quite To Hell. When they showed me the mock-up I had to agree that they were right. It looked like a classic. It was the sort of book you’d see and think ‘Oh that’s probably from the turn of the century, I wonder why I haven’t heard of it.’ That would never do for a modern debut novel. So they commissioned this amazing artist, Part2ism, to spray paint the image on cardboard instead, so now it refers to the original, but has a modern feeling too.
The unavoidable Writer’s Pet question: The Cuckoo Boy also features a cast of animals (including an evil white dog and two mysterious black cats). Pets?
I had a beautiful black cross collie dog, when I was little, but she was ‘too big for the house’ and was sent ‘to live on a farm’. Naturally the realisation what that meant has given me nightmares in later life. Then my parents bought a West Highland Terrior (as in the book). It loved my mother and hated me, so after a few years of trying to win her over, I hated her right back. I now puppy sit a beautiful whippet called Vita. That’s much more my kind of hound.
Not an evil animal
Obligatory writing space photo please!
I am fortunate enough to have – in Ms Woolf’s words – a room of one’s own. I’ve always dreamt I would and now I have. My desk is one of those old wooden school desks with a lid and an ink well. I have used blackboard paint on one wall so that I can write out my story arc and add notes and pictures plus I have papered the walls with pages from The Waves (also Virginia). It’s my absolute haven.
Authors we love… by Grant Gillespie
Posted Wednesday May 5th 2010
Grant Gillespie, debut author of To Hell with Publishing‘s first book The Cuckoo Boy, writes beautifully about imagined dreamscapes and viewing the adult world with a child’s eyes. We asked him to guest-blog about his favourite author… Lewis Carroll.
Books about children have always fascinated me as children inhabit a terrain free of creative boundaries. Through the eyes of a boy or a girl, a writer can look at the world afresh. There’s a complex simplicity to being a child that can be funny, charming and at the same time very, very dark. The first writer that I fell in love with – for this very reason – was Lewis Carroll, who captured brilliantly the illogical logic of a child:
‘I’m so glad I don’t like asparagus,” said the small girl to a sympathetic friend. “Because, if I did, I should have to eat it, and I can’t bear it.’
Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass bear reading time and time again, as a child and as an adult. There’s even a book called the Annotated Alice, which I came across in my late teens, that contains more footnotes and references than in an Arden Shakespeare edition.
We often imagine that children live in a magical world peopled exclusively by fairies at the foot of the garden, but – in most cases – ogres and ghouls are just as prevalent. With this in mind, I wrote a story for my god-daughter Bella. I asked her mother what she liked, and she said ‘Getting her nails done, room service and eating out.’
The girl in question is about 7. Then I asked ‘What doesn’t she like?’ and was told ‘Goblins.’ I wrote her a story about a goblin with nail varnish and a penchant for fine dining. On the plus side Bella bragged to all her friends that she had her very own story. On the downside, she cried herself to sleep.
As a young thing I certainly revelled in the thrill of being afraid.
My favourite passage in Alice was about the baby turning into a pig.
I’d march around the house chanting: ‘Speak roughly to your little boy and beat him when he sneezes,’ – a suggestion, which fortunately my parents didn’t act on. The dreamscape in these books – where anything can happen – had a direct channel to my brain. Surrealism is easy to access as a child. The trick is to be still able to gain admittance as an adult (without the aid of LSD). And I think that, on one level, that’s what all artists try to do.
I began with the Alice, but there have been so many other child-centred books which have inspired me over the years: Le Petit Prince, The Turn of the Screw, The Lord of the Flies, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Vernon God Little – to name but a handful. It’s hardly surprising then that my own debut novel focuses on a disturbed little boy and the difficulty of being born.
Don’t get me wrong. I might like to write or read about children, but I don’t like them in themselves, and like cats – they know – so they flock to me. Kids make me nervous. They’re too honest, too cruel, too selfish. ‘You look like a girl,’ they tell me, or ‘Your nose is too big,’ tempting me to punch them on their own perfectly-formed button snouts. So if you meet one that is exceptionally witty, please don’t invite me over for ‘an audience with…’ just notate what they say and let me have it later.
Grant Gillespie’s debut novel The Cuckoo Boy is available now on To Hell with Publishing
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.
I feel and look like the hedge backwards, because I’m worth it, no, I mean but it was worth it.
It started on Thursday, when I was invited to – the amazing gallery that is – Amuti 23 on Cecil Court so that I could see and hold, for the first time, a copy of my début novel.
The usual suspects present for the occasion were: my personal saviour – the owner of Amuti 23 and To Hell – Laurence Johns; the heaven-sent editor, mentor and now firm friend Lucy Owen, her brilliant and charming actor husband Tom Godwin (plus his also brilliant actor father Christopher), my PR salvation and mistress of wit Emma Young, the To Hell stalwart Jeremy Reed, with his ever-flowing pen in hand, and the Amuti 23 antiquarian fountain of knowledge that belies his years, Jonathan McNamara.
I had thought I’d jump for joy, but I was so excited I think I froze and stared. I had no words at my disposal – which is a first – and did not compute – which is by no means a first. So I blushed, rushed to the pub, downed two glasses of champagne and went to check on my mother who was in my flat. Then I sneaked back out to meet Lucy, Emma and Laurence at Blacks. They were reclining in very good company (Lee Brackstone and Lisa India Baker from Faber, Cathryn Summerhayes from William Morris , and Joe Pickering from Penguin). And I helped them sink several bottles of wine and grinned like the happily damned.
After another check on mother, I joined them again for more booze and some karaoke denial, before we headed back to mine. I then clattered into the room my ma was staying in and woke her up to apologise about the noise I was about to make, and then – true to my word – proceeded to make a lot of noise for several hours together and drink enough to kill a pony.
I think the reality of ‘dream come true, no really it has’, finally hit me whilst I was brushing my teeth after everyone had left. My leg gave way (I was pretty legless) and I fell head-first into the bath. Only my foot decided to stay where it was, so I sprained my ankle. And I didn’t care. Now every time I wince when I put weight on my foot, I’m reminded that I have my book in print and the pain is fortifying.
Sunday was the launch of To Hell, their Awards and the launch of The Cuckoo Boy another momentous occasion for me. And what was both thrilling and anxious-making was the fact that a) I would be giving a reading, but also b) I would be reading alongside the Literary Glitterati… Andrew O’Hagan,
But my friends, who have always been my salvation and my constant delight, rallied in true form. So many people rocked up I was entirely bewildered and felt like a groom at a wedding he hadn’t planned. I simply didn’t have enough time to speak to anyone and most things I said were utter gibberish. A few near and very dear – Ben Leahy, Jon Levene and Karey Fisher – were prevented by volcanoes and family illness but everyone else it seemed was there, including the divine Rachel Pickup, whom the volcano had delivered by preventing her trip to America.
The party was held in The Old Dairy in Bloomsbury, a real find once you’ve actually managed to find it. And from what I remember a thoroughly splendid night was had by all. The readings were marvellous. The drinks were free. I signed books, which made me feel terribly grown up and at the same time like someone posturing as a grown up. It was all too exciting. And I probably was sick in my hand, or maybe a bit in my mouth, but I swallowed it.
Then the party went on to mine again. Did I mention I have a bar? I think I did. My favourite image of the night was seeing my mother talking at DBC Pierre. I have no idea what words were exchanged, but I can imagine. (Yes, one of my literary heroes, DBC Pierre, actually in my flat, thanks to the aforementioned Lee Brackstone, in my flat, in my flat – to be said like ‘in your face’). I think the evening ended around 5am, when every drop of moisture had been drained from every last drinking receptacle.
Next the Canongate party. I don’t want this merry-go-round to stop.
So, it transpires that it’s a greasy slope to the Kingdom of the Blog. I have a sitcom to edit, one-third of a novel to write, magazine pitches to concoct and now like a cupboard-love dog, the blog wants feeding.
At least I’m at my desk. Yesterday I found myself scrubbing the bath and thought ‘How did I get in here? I’m actually in my writing room with my skinny Muse, not on a date with Mr Muscle in the bathroom.’
Then I had a bar dropped round. Yes, a bar. It’s a relay race bar and has been at every good party I’ve attended in the last ten years, so most of my memories have been lost at it. It therefore deserves my grateful attention. So I spent the rest of the day sanding and painting that. I couldn’t have lived with it otherwise and it would certainly have distracted from the call of beauty.
Of course once I’d watched it dry, time then had to be devoted to coming up with a name for my drinking establishment. The Orphanage. Then of course I had to baptise it, with booze. Now after a deep and restorative coma sleep, I’m here typing this. What next? I think I’ll peruse cocktail books and roll enough cigarettes to last me the month. Then I’ll get down to proper work…
I’m going to burlesque my way into the web. Flirtation first, a gentle teasing, a slow unveiling. Determined not to mix my metaphors and avoid clichés and tired, second-hand idioms I shall refuse to rush in where angels fear to, I’ll employ the tiniest premature baby steps, only then will I be sure to catchee catchee the illusive literary monkey. After all it’s about first impressions, judging books by their typeface and avoiding colloquialisms… and all that.