Keith Stuart: A Boy made of Blocks

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 28th October 2016

ALEX is moving out of home. The 30-something still loves his wife Jodie; and his eight-year-old son, Sam, but he’s lost his ability to cope.

Sam has autism, and Alex is terrified of his son’s fears, rages, and lack of control.

He hot foots it off to his best friend Dan — a guy so cool with life — that it makes Alex feel even more of a failure.

He hates his job as a mortgage advisor, and, when Jodie forces him to take his turn looking after Sam, his first efforts confirm all his fears.

A saunter in the park starts well; but then an inquisitive dog so terrifies Sam, that the trip has to be abandoned.

Then Alex is made redundant. Can life get any worse?

I’m uneasy when disabilities feature in fiction. Too often such novels start with an unending litany of disfunction, and end with an over simplified cutesy solution.

When Sam discovers the video game, Minecraft, and proves rather good at it, allowing father and son to connect, things spin off in all kinds of positive ways.

This novel redeems itself when new and more intricate problems present themselves. As Alex learns to cope with Sam, we start to understand the complexities of this much-feared spectrum.

When a day in London starts to go awry, Alex devises strategies to avoid disaster.

Realising his son is like “a tourist in our world, a baffled traveller with no idea about local quirks and customs,” he starts to see Sam as a person whose worldview differs from his own, rather than as a problem to be sorted.

And is Sam so very different? When, on a camping trip, he expresses fear at the silence and empty space, Alex can empathise.

“What he says sounds familiar. The fear of space, of freedom, of uncertainty — it’s how I’ve been feeling these past three months, cast away from everything that meant something to me.”

Not being an aficionado of video games, the long sections showing the two playing the game rather passed me by; but as an example of how discovering such an interactive skill can help someone with this form of learning difficulty, it was illuminating.

Minecraft is not only central to this debut; it’s the reason it was written in the first place.

Keith Stuart is a journalist and is games editor of The Guardian. One of his own two sons is on the autistic spectrum. And it was when the family began playing games like Minecraft, that creative sharing and communication with his son took a leap.

This is not just a book about autism, and how to cope with it; it’s as much about accepting adult responsibilities, keeping love alive, and coping with everyday parenting.

This is especially tough for Alex, because a trauma in his past has left him vulnerable. Ultimately, it’s as much about Sam saving Alex as the other way round.

There are other plot strands to follow.

Will the couple’s marriage survive, or will they succumb to other love interests? Why won’t Alex’s sister, Jess, speak to their mother? What makes her jet round the world? And what of Dan? Is he really happy with his laidback life and lack of structure?

This is a well written and constructed book that keeps you reading; you’ll feel empathy with the characters, and may well shed a tear or two, but there are some fairly predictable plot twists. It’s a kind of male version of the genre which includes Jojo Moyes, and our own Ciara Geraghty.

That is, a feel-good tale written with intelligence, that leaves you thinking in a different way about the issue in hand. I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more from this author.

A Boy made of Blocks. Sphere; €16.99. Kindle: €8.10

Published in The Irish Examiner, Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sue Leonard. 2016

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