There’s been much talk recently about how reading can improve a person’s empathy. But few writers can see inside people’s heads as well as Stewart Foster, author of The Bubble Boy for children, and We Used To Be Kings (for adult readers).
His latest novel for children, All The Things That Could Go Wrong, deals with the topic of bullying in a terrifically empathetic way, alternating chapters between the points of view of the bully and the bullied.
Alex is struggling in secondary school. He has a lot of worries and his OCD makes doing the most ordinary things, such as leaving the house to go to school, very difficult. This term Sophie and Dan are picking on him, which makes life even harder.
Dan is not doing so well at school either. He’s angry because things have been different since his brother went away, and it’s easier to take out that anger on someone weaker.
So it’s mortifying for the both of them when their mothers, naïve to the ins and outs of school gangs and friendships, arrange for them to meet up outside of school to finish building the raft that Dan started with his brother.
The inevitability of the changing nature of their relationship becomes obvious from the moment that Alex’s and Dan’s mothers force them into spending time together, but Foster manages to eke out every single moment of tension between them, as well as realistically delineating exactly how their relationship changes, why, and at an honest pace. It’s not like they’ll be friends overnight.
The dual narrative works well here in a perfect equilibrium. The reader loves both the voices, so that, unlike some books in which the reader races through one narrative to reach their favourite voice, here, the scales feel well-balanced. What’s more Foster doesn’t insinuate more sympathy to or empathy with either character – they are dealt with equally but differently. Each boy’s perspective pushes the plot along, as well as revealing their gradual realisation not only of their own outward projection of how they want to be seen, but also how they are perceived. In the end of course, they have an insight into who they actually are, and how they can be the best part of themselves.
Alex is a fascinating character in that Foster makes sure that his OCD is not what defines him. He has many other interests and talents, which are easy to identify – it’s just that his OCD gets in his own way. What’s more, Foster doesn’t make the OCD the reason that Alex is bullied – in fact the bullies hardly seem aware of it – other than the physical gloves he wears. For Alex it is the preoccupying factor in his life, but for the bullies, they just pick on him because he projects weakness. In fact, they are satisfied to move onto bullying another victim when the time is right.
Also punctuating the story are Alex’s lists of worries, which he is encouraged to write down by his therapist, and the lists are both highly irrational and yet highly understandable. Written in a different typeface, the lists add yet another insight into his mind.
And Dan too is distinctly likeable, despite his bullying of Alex. He exudes a loneliness, anger and frustration symptomatic of many twelve-year-old boys struggling to understand their place in society, as well as struggling to make sense of a significant change in their home lives – in this case the absence of Dan’s older brother. Foster portrays Dan’s lack of communication with those around him, and as an extra insight into his mind, shows the reader Dan’s letters to his brother. They are immensely poignant.
Because of course, part of what defines us as human beings is our relationships with others – how we handle those around us, and as children not just the friends we make at school, but the changing family dynamic. The worry of Dan’s mother, and the portrayal of Alex’s father in handling his son’s illness, are both treated with brevity and yet clear intelligence. Alex’s frustration in not being able to be the big brother he’d like to be to his sister is also heart-breaking.
But as well as the prodigious character crafting, Foster supplies a page-turning plot, a constant anxiety about what could go wrong for the boys, and an excellent breakdown of bullying. The chapters are short and pithy, the prose perspicuous.
It’s an utterly immersive novel about learning to be yourself, and like yourself. It’s a book that I’d like to shove at primary school teachers to share with their classes because of its brilliant exposition of bullying, but also the kind of book children will read by torchlight under the covers because they need to find out what happens next. When they say ‘not to be missed’, this is the kind of book they mean. You can buy a copy here.