The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

A pacey page-turning mystery mashes with an ‘issue’ story in this latest middle grade novel, which won me over with its cunning charm and sympathetic lead character.

Twelve-year-old Matthew Corbin suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder to the extent that he has imprisoned himself within certain rooms of the family house. He spends his days watching out the window – either of his own bedroom or the office/nursery in the upstairs of his house. This device, as anyone who has ever done any surveillance or curtain-twitching, can lead to surprising and interesting discoveries. Matthew takes copious notes of his neighbours’ comings and goings – some humorous, some intriguing.

When a sleek car pulls up in the road and delivers two children to their grandfather, in the house next door to Matthew, things in the neighbourhood start to shake up. Particularly when one of the two children disappears.

Light compelling prose is interspersed with Matthew’s notes on his neighbours, which lightens the text even further, and the chapters are short and pithy, so that the novel skips along at pace. The observations are funny and astute:

“Mr Charles could have been anything from sixty-five to ninety-five – he never seemed to get older. I thought he’d just found an age he quite liked and just stopped right there.”

What’s more, although the book contains a clever mystery – can the reader work out who has taken the child before Matthew does – Lisa Thompson deals sensitively with the issue at hand – OCD.

This is a book for eight year olds and over, so of course, simplicity rules in dealing with the emotional complexity of mental health. Thompson skims over any difficulties with children’s mental health services, and merely touches the surface of the excruciating physical pain that comes with obsessively washing hands and using strong cleaning products, but she does include some brilliant nuggets of truths in dealing with the issue. That a person with OCD can’t just stop it because they’re told to, that it’s not a result of being an overly ‘tidy’ person – but that there is usually a complex reason behind it. With Matthew, Lisa makes the reason fairly simplistic and drops large clues throughout the novel that point to it, with an ending that gives massive hope for recovery.

However, she does also include the heartache that goes along with mental health issues – from the reaction of strangers and neighbours to the illness, to the absence from school and friendships – and, most telling, the agonies of Matthew’s parents. For young readers this will just come across as a shadow of anxiety that falls across Matthew’s life – borne out sometimes by his father’s frustration, and his mother’s hurt, but other readers will also pick up on how they wrestle with what to do in the situation. There’s a strong background of hurts not only in their lives, but in the neighbours’ hidden pasts, and these are all hinted at during the novel. No one’s behaviour goes unexplained.

In fact, for me, this is what propels this novel to book of the week. Each character behaves weirdly if judged simply from Matthew’s notebook – the girl who visits a graveyard almost daily, the bully, the old lady who keeps a light on 24 hours a day, the awkwardness in their dealings with each other, (and Matthew is adept here at looking at body language as well as actions). But each character’s own quirks and perceived weirdness is gradually explained through knowledge and empathy.

So yes, mental health is addressed, and the book features a missing child, but there are so many elements of humour and so many incidents of sympathy and hope that this isn’t a dark novel. It’s poignant, uplifting, and essentially pretty positive. All in all there is more to a person than the quirk with which they are labelled, in the same way that this book is much more than just about OCD. Scratch the surface – there is much more to gain.

Publishes 5th January, although I have already seen copies in the shops, and you can buy it here.

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