The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson
England 1950: Soon-to-be-10, Mark Davenant is a typical lad with a typical lad's life. He loves adding to his model train layout, he plays with his mates and walking best friend Barney the dog. It's on one such walk he comes across Aubrey, an elderly writer living in the forest. They build a friendship based on shared stories and imaginings. Not all in the village are accepting though and, when they try to drive Aubrey out, Mark feels himself torn between old loyalties and new.
|The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson
|Category: General Fiction
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson
|Summary: An average middle England 1950 summer becomes sinister as the beguiling world of a 10-year-old mixes with adult menace; powerful and totally compelling.
|Date: April 2015
|Publisher: Alma Books Ltd
|External links: Author's website
British author James Wilson has made a career of evoking the past, be it Bristol's slaving days in The Bastard Boy, the Victorian world in The Dark Clue and Consolation or the inter-war years of The Woman in the Picture. This time, although still looking back, James moves a little closer to the present, choosing 1950 and an almost sinister coming of age story.
The really clever thing is that the sinister element is generated by our own imaginations and life experience because as our guide, Mark only has a child's understanding. The whole book is well-observed, but there are particular moments (like a conversation Mark has with his mother near the end) when the boy misses the unspoken point completely, just as for us the realisation of it hits hard. But all this talk about nearing the end means I'm getting ahead of myself...
The novel is one of two parts in tone rather than in quality – it's all quality! It begins almost as an adult-orientated Enid Blyton story, as Mark breaks up from school and looks forward to a summer with dog Barney, friends and train set. James' telling of this not only takes us back to the time when the war may have been over but not forgotten, it also shows he remembers what it's like to be 10. Mark's black-and-white logical world (that till now has only blurred to accommodate his games) is slowly merging with the complicated universe of adults.
Up till this summer play has been Mark's escape from the tension at home that traps his mother. However Aubrey's appearance is a catalyst for change and a sudden wake-up call, forcing Mark to choose sides.
As the darker side gradually drips in, things start to add up... or do they? We watch an established, middle class village turn on an outsider making us want to step inside the pages to help Mark voice his thoughts and reasoning. However, at this point, James plays with our perceptions over and over again until this gentle, everyday tale of little England folk reveals itself to be deliciously multi-layered and more complicated than we could have suspected at the outset.
Mark may provide the point of view but this isn’t a one person tale. Mark's parents are incredibly interesting for starters, especially his mood-ridden, self-absorbed father. Aubrey himself is full of bluff Englishness with imagination to spare. Then there's Mark's elderly friend Murky, an unconventional old dear, brimming with good sense and a propensity towards giving her 10 year old protégé the odd glass of berry wine. (Different times!)
The Summer of Broken Stories reminds me of one of the reasons I review books (apart from the obvious, i.e. they let me do it so I do!). From time to time I'm given a book from the pen of an unknown (to me) author. Then, once I finish it, I find myself with a literary crush that compels me to reach greedily for their back catalogue. The empathy, insight and storytelling ability that James Wilson shows in this novel means he is such an author and, as usual in these situations, I am not complaining.
Thank you to the good people at Alma Books for providing us with a copy for review.
Further Reading: If you enjoy seeing the world through a child's eyes while knowing what they can't know, we're betting you'll love What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Summer of Broken Stories by James Wilson at Amazon.com.
Like to comment on this review?
Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.