Magazine article The Spectator

Little Boy Lost

Magazine article The Spectator

Little Boy Lost

Article excerpt

Patrick Skene Catling



Cape, L16.99, pp. 360, ISBN 0224062344

The early diaries of Adrian Mole were a witty caricature of pubescence, but pimples and sexual bewilderment are not always funny at the time. Adam Thorpe's wonderful new novel, dedicated to his three children, is the real thing. He has written a sensitive, unsentimental, surprisingly not unhumorous account of the anguish of a boy's growing awareness in his 12th and 13th years in a family in acute disorder.

Everyone is said to retain subconsciously all memories from the very beginning. Dali and Jane Russell said they could remember life in the womb. But most people's retrieval of early memories is haphazard and fragmentary. Thorpe's empathy with his young protagonist is so vivid that he has been able to portray coherently and at length primal emotional experiences, which are recognisably authentic and universal. Few writers can achieve this sort of impersonation, as many books for children make painfully obvious.

The story is about a petit-bourgeois family in a Paris suburb in 1967 and 1968. Gilles Gobain, at the age of 12, is the only member of his family who seems to have a chance of clinging to normality. He is not well informed - he still thinks that babies emerge from their mothers' navels - but he is intelligent, curious, observant and imaginative. He believes, with superstitious anxiety, in Heaven and Hell and that mysterious, transitional region in between.

'I reckoned,' he recalls, 'that I must beat all records for misery; in fact I'd get the Olympic gold for it.' A little later, he says:

I could beat the world record for saying the rosary . . . like a mad old lady and getting to a million Hail Marys and becoming famous, with TV cameras around me and my picture in the newspapers. Becoming completely holy. …

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