— ♦ —
Anyone who has raised a child knows how demanding being a parent can be. Children seem to have endless energy, boundless curiosity, and a never ending ability to unintentionally get into trouble. But how many of us remember what it was like to be a child? Not those seminal moments that are burned into memory, but the everyday tussling with impulses and wrestling with the bombardment of amazing and unclarified information.
In WHAT I DID, author Christopher Wakling allows us to experience that everyday intensity of childhood by taking us into the mind of six year old Billy. The entire novel is seen through Billy’s eyes as he shares his thoughts and impressions in a never ending stream of consciousness. His insights and reasonings are a tumult to our orderly, adult minds, but to him they make perfect sense, as facts catapult into imagination, and behavior is viewed through a pristine lens.
That is Dad. He is waiting by the front door. We are going to the park. He does not want to go to the park and I do not want to go to the park but we are going out to the park because that’s what he thinks we both should want to do because it is so early. Mum is still not back from her night shifting. I woke up very early because it just happened and I didn’t realize it so I woke up Dad. When there are dandelions in the lawn you should dig them out with the handle of a spoon to get the root as well as the leaves, he says, and that is what his eyes looked like when he rolled over and opened them: dirt holes. He also smelled of the rusty gate.
It is this trip to the park that propels the action of the story. A “terrible thing” happens during this nothing-special outing, but that only gets the ball rolling. Even Billy warns: “But watch out because the thing you think is the terrible thing isn’t really it. Other things come later and they’re worse.”
And so the story develops along lines that we (especially as parents) fear and yet seem inevitable once the initial actions occur; no space monsters, underworld mobsters or hidden fairies here. WHAT I DID could be a rather pedestrian tale, except that for the extraordinary point of view – we are seeing events unfold through eyes that do not have the experience to understand the ramifications of actions, nor be able to project the consequences of simple differences of interpretation. There is no black and white, no true evil or salvation (Billy says that nobody is good or bad here, “or rather, everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the bad and good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce terrible chemical reactions.”) – it simply is life being swept along a tumbling path of least resistance.
And then later when I was watching “Insect Hunters“, Dad got home. I heard the door go. There was a change in the house. It got smaller all of a sudden, like the pupil of an eye when you shine a light into it. Cats have slit pupils. I don’t know why exactly. Actually it’s because of car headlights.
At first I found this constant focused-yet-disjointed thought process that is a child’s mind quite off-putting, and I wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable reading an entire book written solely through Billy’s viewpoint. But author Wakling does an admirable job with the consistency of that viewpoint, and once I relaxed in the flow of the narrative, it carried me buoyantly down the center of the tale. How Wakling was able to maintain that child’s voice and still share so much information (even much to which Billy is relatively oblivious) is a marvel to me. According to one interview, he had spent a great deal of time listening to his own children, writing down what they said and imaging what they had been thinking, filling notebooks to use as reference in WHAT I DID. Those years of diligent research paid off, because after a time my own long forgotten sense of childhood observation emerged and recognized a “genuine-ness” in Billy’s voice and actions.
Dad squeezes the rim of his little coffee cup. The shapes inside it bend. Our moon is actually an oval, too: it just looks round and full of craters. They’re important: like the cracks everywhere else, they let the light in. How else would nocturnal animals see? I finish my burger. There was a crack in its bun, too, but all it let out was mayonnaise.
But WHAT I DID is not merely a quaint little tale written from a unique viewpoint. There is a sinister story arc that the reader can see, even if Billy does not grasp it fully. This creates a distinct tension building towards a climactic end that I will admit had me feverish turning page after page, afraid of what might happen and utterly unable to detach from it. And it is all the more suspenseful because there is no “good” or “bad”, no clearly established course of right or wrong actions, and no inner alarms going off in Billy’s innocence – only in the reader’s our own heart.
Which isn’t to say that Billy is totally unaware that something is going on, but it’s an awareness that is immediate and based on the reactions of those around him. He struggles to process the anger and conflict he senses in his parents and the others who populate his world, often likening them to creatures that he’s encountered in his beloved nature shows. But it’s the utter faith he has in those around him, which we see failing, that makes us fear for him.
Yes, I know I haven’t delved very deep into the actual story – I don’t want to. It’s not that complex of a tale and anything I give you now would work towards your making assumptions, something of which I want to steer clear. Because after all, WHAT I DID is not so much a novel that hinges on plot twists and turns, but on seeing the escalation of probable events in a very unique way – and it is well worth the read for that reason alone.