"A Boy Made of Blocks" Keith Stuart
This is a tender novel, inspired by Stuart's own relationship with his son who has autism, about a father trying to rebuild his complicated relationship with his son and how they begin to bond over the computer game of Minecraft. It's an emotional read with moments of sadness, frustration and anger but yet full of humour, warmth and love. It reads very much like a Nick Hornby or David Nicholls book; accessible, fluid, easy and engaging- a good light read.
The book opens with Alex, the father, separating from his wife Jody as the pressure of raising a son whose condition is so consuming and demanding that it has sadly become too much for both of them. Alex gives an honest and frank admission of the effects of parenting a child with autism:
"We've basically spent out whole marriage worrying about Sam - his outbursts, his silence, the days he'd scream at us, the days he'd hide in his bed and shrink from any contact at all. Days and days, stretching out to months, trying to anticipate the next breakdown. And while we were coping with that, the things that Jody and I had together somehow faded away."
It's difficult enough to prioritise your relationship with small children anyway, so I can certainly understand Alex and Jody's situation - neither are to blame and neither are too angry but there is a sense of mental and emotional exhaustion which makes the effort of each other too much. However, Stuart's writing is humorous and the fact that the story comes from Alex's point of view rather than Jody's probably helps distance the reader from becoming overwhelmed by the emotional issues in the novel. I really enjoyed Stuart's wry comparisons about how Alex and Jody respond to their separation, for example, the women go out to lunch with that "effortless unguarded frankness that most men are incapable of. You know:'Have some of this lemon cake, it's lovely and also, tell me more about the emotionally apocalyptic disintegration of your nine-year marriage?'" The men have a conversation about football which includes a couple of very loose similes for Alex's situation. Other than that it is largely ignored and Alex finds himself camping on a flat airbed in his friends flat, seeking refuge in the pub or in a video game.
However, Alex is not shallow and he is not unaffected by the separation. He is a dedicated father who loves his son Sam deeply. He fights for Sam - "you learn the rules and exploit them..you fight for every test, every consultation, every specialist.." He just struggles with how to parent him at times. And this is not something he can be admonished for - in fact, it encourages more empathy - it is his care, love and responsibility for his son that has lead to his sense of failure and helplessness.
"Sam is the planet of concern and confusion that we have been orbiting for most of our relationship."
And he feels guilty that they have struggled so much when their diagnosis is that Sam is on the upper end of the autism spectrum - "the easy end. The shallow end....the underlying message being: you've got it easy compared to other parents." But as Alex states, "labels only get you so far." When Sam is screaming and shouting they can say "it's Autism" but "Autism is a sort of malevolent spirit, a poltergeist, a demon. Sometimes it really is like living in The Exorcist." Labels don't "help you sleep, stop you from getting angry and frustrated".
"Because of autism, there is no Jody and I, there is Jody, me and the problem of Sam. That's how it feels. But I can't say that. I can barely think it."
The novel also offers insight to the day to day struggle of living with autism. Stuart's convivial language easily conveys situations and provides pertinent, striking examples without sounding in any way educative or text book like. This is not a "guide to dealing with autism" or an autobiography but there are some descriptions which I thought really captured what parents with children who have autism must feel. As Alex tells us "Autistic children do not all have special powers.... To Sam, the world is a gigantic engine that needs to function in a certain way, with predictable actions, in order to ensure his safety...... everyone else is playing this huge game and he's got to try to figure it out as he goes along. It's exhausting ....we have to explain everything over and over...some rules will never make sense to him."
But such heart rendering explanations are often contrasted with comments that will raise a smile and reestablish the balance of this ultimately "feel good" read. I especially liked the things Sam has "shared" with people as he often says the first thing that comes into his head and with very little awareness of what's appropriate and what should not be repeated to people's faces, although excruciating for Alex and Jody, it did make me giggle! Or Alex's account of breakfast:
"CAREFULLY CUBED fruit. Have you ever cut apples into exact one-centimetre cubes at five in the morning? It's tough- especially when the recipient makes Gordon Ramsay look laid back and amenable."
Or during a very public tantrum:
"Jody had to restrain me from picking Sam up, handing him over to the concerned woman on the deckchair next to us and saying. "Here, honestly, you take him."
Although I think there is not a parent among us who has not had that feeling at some point!
Then there is a shift in the novel. Alex and Sam discover Minecraft. With three young children myself, this is a game I am very familiar with and to be honest, what attracted me to the book in the first place. For those not in the know, Minecraft is basically like lego but on screen. You create virtual worlds, build the most awesome structures, raise animals and it seems to have endless potential. I think it is a very imaginative and creative game which probably teaches engineering, planning, maths, architecture and story telling. For Sam, it gives him a world which he can control. A world in which the the rules can be ambiguous and ever changing but ultimately, a world in which he is in charge and he understands how to operate within.
To begin with, Alex and Sam simply find the gentle background music of the game "hypnotic" and then when Sam explains some aspects of the game to Alex he speaks the longest sentence Alex has ever heard; "It pours out unselfconsciously. No stutters, no breaks.....it feels revelatory." They then use the world of Minecraft to navigate the real world, using it as a distraction when they are out or making parallels and comparisons so that Sam is suddenly walking past dogs or things that usually act as a trigger obliviously, so deeply engaged in his virtual universe. And then they are able to use Minecraft to talk about autism.
"I am like a Creeper!"
"What because if people get close to you, you explode?"
While finally managing to connect with Sam, Alex has a series of epiphany like moments about his relationship with Autism, with Sam, with Sam's education, with Jody and suddenly by seeing the world from a different perspective, he gains clarity and understanding. Alex almost "wakes up" after having travelled as a "passenger staring out the window at the rolling scenery" and now wanting to "drag the driver out, punch him in the face and steal the car." He wants to "reconnect with the world." By the end of the novel I was wondering who Minecraft really saved and who really was the character needing saving.
What is really engaging about this book is the down to earth tone of narrative and the very "up front" and honest voice of Alex. He is a very likeable character; he is ordinary, he is fallible, he mishandles things, he makes mistakes. He is a parent trying to do his best. This book is an emotional journey for him but it is written with a gentle warmth. It is not moralistic or patronising. Although a very valuable and interesting account of autism, it is as much about parenting, marriage and facing responsibilities and a great read for anyone with children. It didn't feel like a novel "about autism", it felt like watching Hugh Grant in an amiable Saturday afternoon movie. In fact, I hope it does make it to the screen as I think it would be an excellent BBC drama.
Stuart has added an afterword about the true story behind the book. He says:
"Video games get a bad rap; we often think of them as things we need to control and limit- by they can also be a permissive space where people learn and share and create, without judgement or confinement."
And I'd like to leave you with his final thoughts:
"Life puts up so many barriers to people who are different. Any tool that helps us to appreciate those people - whoever they are, however they differ from us- is a precious thing. This is what I learned and what this book is about."
Thank you to NetGalley and the publishers for approving me an advanced copy of this novel in return for an honest and fair review. I really enjoyed it and rate it a 4/5 read.
If you like the sound of this book, try Lisa Genova "Love Anthony" for another story about the parent of an autistic child - also reviewed on this blog, use the search box to help find it.
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