The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan

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The Knife That Killed Me by Anthony McGowan

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Harsh, unflinching, uncompromising and bleak, this is an intelligent look at the rise in knife crime amongst Britain's teenagers. Beautifully written, there's little of Henry Tumour's wild humour, but the sparks of wit are still there, caught like tiny stars in the tragedy of it all.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: April 2008
Publisher: Definitions
ISBN: 978-1862306066

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The knife that killed me wasn't a special knife at all. It didn't have any runes on it. Its handle wasn't made of ivory or rhino horn, but cheap black plastic. It was a kitchen knife from Woolworths, and its blade wobbled like a loose tooth. But it did the job.

According to the back of The Knife That Killed Me, 29 percent of secondary school children admit to routinely carrying knives. One in five sixteen-year-old boys attacking someone with a knife admit their intent to cause serious injury. The most likely victims of knife crime are young males aged between fourteen and twenty-four. These are terrifying statistics, the kind that make you say "something must be done". But what? What must be done? Send them all to youth offender centres, so they can commit suicide? Send them to the overflowing adult prisons? Perhaps they could all start sleeping top to toe in the cells? I don't know. I don't have any answers. But it is good to see teen fiction beginning to engage with this subject. Benjamin Zephaniah's Teacher's Dead was great, and now the rather spiffing Anthony McGowan is turning his intelligent attention to it also.

Paul's school is like any other school - full of subtle and less subtle hierarchies. There are thickies and swots, bullies and victims, jocks and freaks. Paul hasn't quite found his niche. He's bright but inattentive and so his classes are dull, full of meatheads and other intellectual inferiors. Paul is attracted to the freaks really, he likes the way they're not involved in fights, that they talk about art and politics and music, that they tolerate one another's foibles. But the freaks get picked on; they're everyone's punchbag, and Paul lacks the confidence to commit to them fully. The bully at Paul's school is a bully apart. His name is Roth and in addition to pure and brutal physical force, he has the ability to command a soul. When he gives Paul a knife - a recruitment gift, you could call it - Paul has two roads from which to choose.

Good lord, but this is a bleak book. It's a classical tragedy, with the protagonist suffering an agonising downfall through one mistake; the decision to carry a knife, which springs not only from a deep-seated need to belong, but also from misplaced sexual jealousy. McGowan's last book, Henry Tumour felt Shakespearean, but The Knife That Killed Me feels horribly, horribly Hardy-esque. It's all so sad, so inevitable. Hector and his brain tumour Henry made me laugh like a drain, but there is little of that in The Knife That Killed Me. However, the wit is still there, caught in the inevitability of events like tiny, glinting stars. Bates and Miller for example, the bully's two hangers-on, are referred to as the Apes of Roth. Such moments, though, are precious few, so enjoy them when you meet them.

It's beautifully written of course - clever man, clever writing, clever references, clever ideas. The narrative is a kind of flashback. We are asked to imagine Paul in an Achilles and the tortoise paradox; the knife comes ever closer, but never quite reaches him. We see what we imagine others see as death approaches - an entire life, flashing before us. What brought Paul to this? So the book is doom-laden and claustrophobic from its very first page. We're never in any doubt that things turn out for the worse.

If I were a teenager reading this book, would I think again about the casual violence of school life, about knives? I think I would. I hope I would. This being the clever Mr McGowan, there is a twist in the tale, but it doesn't make things any easier to read or to bear. I think perhaps McGowan's real accomplishment here though, is to write such a powerful book with not a trace of the lecturing or pious about it. I hope it finds its way into classroom discussions up and down the country.

My thanks to the good people at Random House for sending the book.

If they liked The Knife That Killed Me, they might also enjoy Teacher's Dead, which also looks at the aftermath of teen knife crime. Zephaniah has a very different, but equally capable, way with words.

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The Author said:

Dear Jill

Will you marry me?


Jill replied:

Dear Tony

I am, fortunately for you, already taken. You can marry my husband if you like though: his feet smell.


Anthony McGowan replied:


I suppose what I meant was, thanks for such a generous review. Sorry if I got a bit carried away. Smelly feet, eh? Strange that, because my feet are the only part of me that doesn’t smell.


Jill replied:


I don't think it was a generous review at all, but you are welcome! I think you should become Home Secretary, replacing the buffoon we have currently. Kebabs indeed. Bah.

His feet don't really smell!