Book Review: The Former Boy Wonder

“Even though I know I shouldn’t, even though the last time I did this I swore I never would again, I get up and go to look for the past”

The Former Boy Wonder, by Robert Graham, tells the story of a man going through a midlife crisis. It is narrated by Peter Duffy, who is approaching his fiftieth birthday. His once glittering and lucrative career as an Access All Areas music writer is on the wane with interested readers turning to blogs and similar free internet content rather than paying for specialist magazines. Peter’s marriage to Lucy has turned stale. Their teenage son regards his father with resigned contempt, considering him an idiot. Given the tale being told, the boy’s summation is hard to disagree with.

The story opens in the 1970s. Peter’s father, a professional comedian who becomes a renowned television personality, leaves the family home in Bangor, Northern Ireland, for London following another row with his wife. Peter adored his father but the schism created by his leaving proves hard to heal. Peter romanticises events in his life, viewing the past through a prism coloured by his beloved comic books, fiction and film. His dealings with other people focus on how their behaviour affects him. He assigns blame with little consideration for any role he might have played, or how he may have chosen to react differently.

“I had been the little prince, the apple of my father’s eye, and then he left. The little prince had lost his kingdom; he had been a happy little boy before it all went wrong.”

Peter leaves Bangor to study at the Poly in Manchester. Here he makes friends he will remain close to for decades – Lucy, Bill and Caitlin. At the latter’s twenty-first birthday party he encounters a student from the University, Sanchia Page, who will become his first true love.

The narrative shifts between this younger Peter as he navigates an all consuming love affair and the older Peter looking back on a time he has gilded. Although he wants to make his marriage to Lucy work, acknowledging her many positive attributes, he hankers after the passion he remembers with Sanchia. When Caitlin invites Peter to her fiftieth birthday party he cannot stop wondering if Sanchia will be there – and what that could possibly mean for his future, and hers.

Although the older Peter’s career has stagnated, Lucy remains a successful businesswoman. She is organised, efficient and likes to keep her house pristine, something her husband both admires and struggles with.

“Someday she’s going to fold me up, shove me into a cupboard, slam the door shut and lean against it until I’m restrained.
I wrest myself away from contemplating our clinical surroundings and the fun I haven’t been having”

Nevertheless, Lucy remains encouraging and supportive, until she realises Peter has been fantasising about Sanchia again. Peter is a man who has achieved everything that matters, yet properly appreciates none of it. He wants the life he had – or at least how he remembers it – over what he has now and could still achieve.

A strong sense of period and place is threaded through the story – the housing, nightlife and gentrification of both Manchester and London; the impact of this on a boy from Bangor. The popular music of Peter’s youth adds to the atmosphere, especially that which has stood the test of time. The author includes detailed descriptions of clothes, especially as worn by the women. While I would usually find this unnecessary, even irksome, here it adds to the evocative scene setting on which the story is built.

I struggled to warm to Peter, a man so obviously self engrossed and self entitled I wondered how Lucy had stuck with him (this does become clear later). Perhaps because of this it took some time to fully engage. Once I did, the slow motion car crash of Peter’s life held me in its thrall despite his continuing foolish behaviour.

A slow burn of a story then but one that is well worth sticking with, not least because of Lucy’s development. A reminder of how gloriously painful it is to be young and eager, but that fifty can also be memorable if lived in the present and with the right mindset.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lendal Press.

Book Review: Stories We Tell Our Children

stories tell children

“There is much conjecture as to how much degeneration occurred from the oral tradition, once it was set down on the page and ramrodded into the literary canon. But nothing compared to the twenty and twenty-first century mutation of the morals such tales were supposed to inculcate. Besides, contemporary children’s imaginations are scarce populated with denizens from the faerie realm. Magic and transformation these days takes place courtesy of fibre optics, usually through a gunsight and lots of pixelated cruor.”

Stories We Tell Our Children, by Marc Nash, is a collection of short stories that explore how children are shaped by the words they hear spoken by the adults charged with raising them. Although dark in places the writing style is playful. It brings to the fore how some of the best intentioned actions and interventions, when observed objectively, make little sense. It is not just parents who are put under the microscope of the author’s perceptive and piercing gaze. Many of the stories included follow the children as they grow and develop. The impact of their upbringing is often not what the parents intended or could have foreseen.

The collection opens with a mother teaching colours to her young offspring. It highlights how parents simplify facts and work to keep children engaged in such supposedly fine educational forays, while drifting off at tangents themselves. This is followed by a tale of a boy caught in the crossfire of warring parents, fearing that their battles will escalate, resulting in a murder. Children do not, after all, see the world through adult eyes. The third story looks at the tooth fairy myth, begging the question why such lies are propagated when children are routinely castigated for fibbing. The children in many of these stories are the ones offering the voice of reason.

Several of the tales are imbued by classic stories, pointing out that many of these have recently been sanitised with dubious rationale. Others deal with the lasting damage that closely involved parenting can wreak. It was interesting to consider that a degree of parental neglect can encourage a burgeoning imagination – required to overcome boredom. Many of the parents trying to raise future successes are shown to be attempting to fulfil their own dreams vicariously.

Rescinderella is a clever inversion of the Cinderella story – one I particularly enjoyed, if that is a suitable word for what is a tragedy. Certain of these tales include disturbing incidents – this is not a collection demanding a happy ever after. And it is not just the troubled who have issues. The gifted and talented also end up with crosses to bear.

The impact of books and reading are recurring themes. The author explores the fictions characters devour alongside those they create to make their lives appear more acceptable and interesting, especially to themselves. When stripped back to what is basic existence, where time passes however filled, there is a shadow of nihilism.

Yet this is an entertaining, not depressing, collection. While some of the stories resonated more than others, there is much to glean from each entry. As well as parenting habits, the author pokes fun at the conceits of creatives – with wit rather than callousness. If readers find mirrors within these words it is with a droll recognition.

The writing style employs much play on available language. The author does not employ simple language when more interesting forms of expression may be utilised. That said, there is nothing difficult in the reading.

The overarching theme may be the stories we tell our children and how these impact their development, but the tales also bring to light the stories we tell ourselves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.