Friday, July 20, 2012

What I Did : Blog Tour Review

Find it at indiebound or Amazon.

If you've read Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime or Matt Haig's The Dead Fathers' Club or Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and you found Christopher or Philip or Oskar fascinating, you'll likely find What I Did, with its six-year-old protagonist Billy, equally intriguing. This new novel by British-American Christopher Wakling promises a stellar read for fans of close first-person perspective and for those who enjoy inhabiting the mind of a singularly unusual child. 

Because voice is the primary element here, I'll offer a longish excerpt from the introduction. Here's how Billy begins:
This is the first bit and shall I tell you why?  Okay I will.  It is to make you read the rest.
Don't worry, it isn't a trailer.  Trailers are the first bits before films which are actually really adverts and Dad says adverts are where they try to get you to buy something probably don't want.  Then again Mum says maybe you do.  I often want it.
          You want this story.  It has already started...
When you're watching a trailer it won't even be before the right film!  That's great, I love that it looks fantastic, let's watch that.  No, we can't.  It's not here.  That is called frustrating.
Dad says they put all the best bits of a film in the trailer to reduce you to watching it, and that quite often the rest of the film isn't up to much, but he is wrong.  They don't put the best bits in there, not always.  There's no bit where Luke actually blows up the Death Star in the trailer for Star Wars but they do have light savers which are magnificent.
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.

His website's

As you can see, the humor of this novel emerges from Billy's at once precocious and impulsive character and his free-associating voice.  Plus, Billy's an enormous fan of David Attenborough's nature videos, and his naively humorous yet often trenchant comparisons of human behavior to that of predators and prey add a dimension that enriches his internal monologue.  This novel is chock-full of hilarious malapropisms and aural/oral linguistic confusions as well, so those of us who embrace both the complexity and the absurdity of the English language will find laugh-out-loud passages on nearly every page.  (I learned that misheard and thus misunderstood words or expressions may also be called "oronyms" thanks to Isabel Costello, who also offers a thoughtful response to What I Did.)  If you're looking for more hilarious samples of Billy's worldview, complete with "Billy"-drawn illustrations, hop over to Wakling's website and "Billy's Blog".

But don't think that this book is just one gag after another: far from it.  In fact, it's also a harrowing tale of partial understandings, of multiple truths, of missed opportunities, and of unfortunate choices when they count the most. 

Dramatic irony fuels narrative tension here: we as readers understand far more than Billy does; his self-absorbed blunders and willfulness - worsening an already bad situation - make us cringe with concern.  And, clearly, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree:  Billy's dad follows the same pattern as he reacts to an unfulfilling job situation and to Billy's constant drama.  The novel's major conflict - and one that aggravates tensions between Billy's Mum and Dad as well - is initiated when a nosy pedestrian reports Billy's dad to Social Services for (what most readers will see as regrettably yet understandably) spanking him after he ignores repeated warnings and runs out into a busy street.  And because Billy's one of the most accident prone/ADHD six-year-olds ever, his continued impulsive actions lead to a number of additional personal injuries, exacerbating misunderstandings with the "ChildSafe" social services team investigating the family.  How Mum, Dad, Grandma Lynne, and Billy respond to "Butterfly" and "Giraffe" from "ChildSafe" provides the central conflict in the narrative, with plenty of tense moments among Billy's family members emerging in response to this crisis.

The novel's most salient strength - Wakling's Billy - may also be its liability for some readers:  What I Did takes place over just a few days, and - to be honest - whatever tension could be developed between the inciting incident and the intense final forty pages is undermined by Billy's incessant digressions and by his realistic focus on the present moment coupled with his ignorance about his own plight.  Thus, the tension that mounts among the other characters related to the main plot is experienced obliquely.  Personally, I enjoyed the entire novel, but I did want to offer a heads-up to those who prefer more intensely single-plot-driven works.

On the whole though, I found much to appreciate here, and recommend this novel.  I would think that my IRL book group would find plenty of fodder for discussion in What I Did,  as it's mostly young moms for whom the central issues of raising a child would hit quite close to home.  I suspect that many book groups would enjoy it too, regardless of the life circumstances of their members.

Many thanks to TLC tours and to Mr. Wakling's publishers, HarperCollins, for offering me the opportunity to be part of this blog tour.  To enjoy others' responses to What I Did, simply follow the schedule for the rest of this tour.


My action:  I'm going to review the developmental psychology of six-year-olds, because I've never raised one and often found myself wondering, "Are six-year-olds normally this willful?  This out-of-control?  Do they tend to pee their pants a lot? Is this kid some sort of autistic-savant?"  And then there's Billy's cousin Lizzy: she's three years old and not yet speaking at all.  Where is her silence on the spectrum of language acquisition?  Clearly, I need a review!

1 comment:

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours said...

I definitely got a feel for the book based on the quote you provided and I'm pretty sure I'll really enjoy it!

Thanks for being a part of the tour.

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