Friday, 30 December 2011

Top 5 reasons why 'What I did' by Christopher Wakling is the most disturbing book I've read all year

List by Tosca

Sadly there are no light savers in this story. It is all real. It is about a terrible thing which happens to me. But watch out because the thing you think is the terrible thing isn't really it. Other things come later and they're worse. I'm not going to tell you what they are yet because now isn't the time. That is called suspension.
I also have to warn you that nobody is bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce terrible chemical reactions.
Did you know cheetahs cannot retract their claws?
Here is the real beginning."

- Billy Wright in What I did by Christopher Wakling

Tuesday of Christmas weekend was my 'reading' day. I had gone home the Friday beforehand with a huge stack of DVDs and fiction/nonfiction/graphic novels to get through. In my usual fashion I left the books until my last day of the four day weekend and, really, had no clue what I would be getting when reading Wakling's What I did.

Mr. Wright gets the fright of his life when 6 year old Billy runs out into traffic. Angry, concerned and relieved he smacks his son. Hard. A passerby who tried to intervene (and is told to get lost) later calls social services. The fallout is beyond anything Billy and his parents could ever have imagined.

Wakling's What I did is very well-written, hugely topical, greatly interesting and wholly disturbing. Truly. Not because it's a terrible book. In fact, far from it. It's disturbing because the whole time you're wanting adults to ask the RIGHT questions, you're wanting Billy's dad to stop being so close mouthed and speak up, you're wanting Billy's grandma to JUST BE QUIET, you're wanting Billy to stop being so charming and scatter brained (he's 6, I know, I know) and see what social services are getting at, you're wanting social services to stop being so dense and you're wanting Billy's mum something useful (I'm not sure what, she seemed quite spineless) and OH! The frustration just goes on. But never, at any time, is my frustration about the way the book is written or the way everything is handled. Although at times it's very amusing (Billy's rather unusual view of adults and his world around him is informed by nature documentaries), it's not an 'enjoyable' read. And by 'enjoyable' I mean that it's not the kind of book that leaves you with a happy feeling. And maybe that's a part of why I found it so disturbing. Some people will liken What I did to Australian book The slap by Christos Tsialkos but I can't because I haven't read it yet. I have it on request at the moment, but I do wonder if I should have left it for a few weeks so that I won't always have that thought in the back of my mind. If you've read The slap and this one, do let me know! So, long story short - which I could've done in the first place, right? - I really, really (can't stress *really* enough) think this is a darn good read. It's also disturbing. And here's why...

There isn't any real 'villain' of the piece
This isn't a tidy novel where the bad guy is easily identifiable as the bad guy. And the good guys aren't so obvious either. In fact, I don't believe there are any good guys or bad guys. There are just...guys. As Billy says in our quote for this post, nobody is bad or good. Misguided and overzealous and far too unaware, yes, but definitely not bad/evil.

Six year old boys make frustrating narrators
Absolutely true. Billy is this weird mix of engaging and charming and wise and childish that, I think, serves to wind the narrative tension that much tighter, but he is also incredibly frustrating. His attention wanders, he only catches half-words (if even that), he doesn't quite have the vocabulary he needs to be understood and, worse, he has all the emotion of, well, a six year old because, hello, he is only six years old *sigh* And then I am disarmed when I remember, and I marvel at his intelligence while acknowledging that he is frustrating.

There is no happy ending
Although I suppose that depends on your definition of 'happy ending,' doesn't it? Nobody falls in love and gets married at the end. It's not that sort of an ending. It's an ending of sorts. Just not the one I wanted where I would never have to worry about the characters again. An open ending, if you will, and for pessimists like me? GAH. Anathema. Some part of me is always going to wonder about what could have happened to Billy and the Wrights after the book closes. The fanciful part of me will hope that the people carry on without me. Do you know what I mean? As if they didn't need me, my reading, to validate them. That they would live on and grow up and get older and grow together, and that my reading of it was only a teeny, tiny window into a very small part of their ongoing lives.

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, we just make things worse
Adults can get things wrong. This isn't news. Sometimes...we just get things wrong. Sometimes it's not just 'wrong,' it's oh-so-wrong. Life changing wrong, even. And yet not always deliberate. Advice that Billy kept receiving would greatly influence the answers he gave, or even how he gave them, and it kept getting in such a tangle. Add to that his frustration at not being understood, it just kept going around and around and getting worse and worse until you wonder where it can all go and what can happen. Wakling handles narrative tension like a fiend. (That's a compliment, by the way).

It could happen to anybody
Or could it? Wakling makes you question over and over again: How much say should the state have in peoples' homes, in the way they raise their children? Where is the boundary? Who decides where that boundary is? How is it enforced? And to what end? Some part of me says, 'It could happen to anyone,' while another part of me asks, 'It couldn't. Surely?' And I guess that's what disturbs me most of all, that I'm just not sure.

And now I want to read it all over again to make sure I didn't just imagine it all. It did, of course, make me think about section 59 of our Crimes Act, and the debate that that still raises today.

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