The Summer of Broken Stories – A Review
The Summer of Broken Stories is a coming-of-age novel by James Wilson which takes place in the late 1950s, over the summer of Mark Davenant’s tenth birthday. Ten years seemed to me quite an early point to set a coming-of-age novel (partially because I was the worst scrote when I was ten, and the further I can distance myself from that the better), but it is an important age in one respect, which becomes clearer over the course of the book. Ten is the age of criminal responsibility, the earliest point at which you can be legally held accountable for your actions. Up until then, even if you didn’t realise it, you could and probably did safely assume that you were cute enough to get out of any bother. But somewhere around your first decade, society draws a line between “moppet” and “little shit”, and you need to get on the right side even if you don’t entirely understand why it’s there.
The book follows Mark as he crosses this line, and makes a hopeless attempt to resist the new, confusing rules which begin to govern his life. The story begins with Mark meeting Aubrey Hillyard, a writer living on the edge of the village. The blurb introduces Hillyard as `an irreverent outsider`, which I took to mean “insufferable”, but thankfully he was more interesting than the grating waxed-moustache kind of eccentricity that phrase suggests. For about the first third of the book I made a note of every personality flaw I could find, feeling very pleased with myself for picking holes in his character, until I realised that I was doing exactly what Wilson wanted me to do. As we see more of the story he’s writing, it becomes obvious that Hillyard has the same fear of adult life as Mark does, and as the village grows increasingly suspicious of him he enlists Mark’s help to keep it away for as long as he can.
The story is driven by the inevitability of growing up, but one of its least effective parts was Wilson’s use of Mark’s dog, Barney, as a way of showing this. To start off with it’s a pretty clever illustration, with Barney physically dragging Mark further and further towards the point of no return. It gets weird, however, at about the point Wilson writes that `Mark can feel [Barney] stiffening, pressing against his thigh.’ I don’t know whether Wilson meant that line to come off as it does, but if he didn’t he really should have been paying more attention.
Fortunately, Wilson has a range that goes further than Carry On. One of his main strengths is writing from a child’s perspective, meaning that Mark’s struggle against growing up is understandable even if you’ve long passed the Shit Threshold. This is most evident when he manages to resurrect the fear of getting into trouble that you have when you’re a child. I’d almost forgotten how powerful the pure idea of being in trouble is when you’re too young to realise that adults don’t have infinite authority – the reason that being sent to the headteacher is pretty much the scariest thing that can happen at a certain age. But every time Mark has to talk to an adult, Wilson makes that fear hover over the conversation, showing you adult responsibilities through the same lens of guilt and shame with which Mark sees them. He also describes the setting with a child’s priorities – Mark’s village is named so few times that I had to rifle back through to check it was named at all – but the book is full of small geographical details, like bust road signs and overgrown shortcuts, details of the kind that become landmarks at the tail-end of a summer holiday once you’ve been stuck for months on end with nothing to do but play out. You get the sense that Mark understands this world and his place in it, and with that in mind it seems quite reasonable that he would try to hold onto it when it leaves him behind.
Books about children often leave me cold, simply because I don’t really like children and would rather not spend any more time with them than was absolutely necessary, let alone spend an entire book inside one’s head. For all of The Summer of Broken Stories’ stiff dogs, the fact that Wilson did such a good job of making me empathise with a child is testament to his skill as a writer.