“’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.”
At the heart of this story is one single question – is someone evil when their environment and lack of love have created someone unable to go through society in a normal way and they kill as a result?
It’s a tough one to answer but Grant Gillespie asks it in a very clever way through the character of James. The surviving child after one twin has died he is adopted by a normal, house proud and uptight couple Sandra and Kenneth who cannot have children of their own. Perhaps they are as unable to love and bond with him as they are but as he grows up he does so devoid of love and attention stuck at home with a mother who increasingly comes to hate and fear him.
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 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 so you just how easy it is for children to be left behind when their parents cannot cope and when their 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.
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 cliche 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…
Having got a child of my own the idea that you could have a son who is both unloved and is suffering from a complete retreat into an imaginary world is something that you have to rely on Gillespie’s fiction to deliver.
The fact he does so and maintains a growing tension as the cuckoo boy James grows up and drives his parents to the edge of sanity and their marriage keeps you reading even when it is uncomfortable to read about the exploits of a disfunctional family.
The book focuses on the quartet of Sandra, Ken and their adopted son James and his imaginary friend David. The problem is that David only turns up after a couple of years where James has managed to already create such a gulf between himself and his mother that the idea each could perhaps love each other has already become a non starter.
You sense that as the years go by and the imaginary David makes James step up the violence and the danger this can only end badly. As we all know it’s the real people and not the imaginary who take the blame.
A full review to follow shortly…