“King Crow” by Michael Stewart (2011)

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‘king hell…

“When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.”

It’s been a long time since I found myself close to not bothering to finish a book, so this was very overdue. I haven’t not finished a book in years, and this one was only small, but after getting only 70 pages in over three days (given I read the 600+ pages of Dead Like You in the same time), I seriously thought about not finishing. But, then today happened, the weather was nice and I had a hangover to fight off, so I got stuck in and finished the damn thing.

Paul Cooper is a sixteen-year-old boy with no friends and a fascination with birds of all kinds. He has a rotten home life – his father left when he was very young, and his mother now has a string of affairs with unsuitable women – and has recently moved to a new school, where he’d rather read his ornithological books and ignore the world around him.

Then he meets Ashley, who is cool, good-looking and basically his polar opposite. Ashley has got involved with a gang of drug dealers and when a deal goes wrong, Ashley is tortured. Cooper helps him escape, and the two steal a car to get away from their assailants, but may kill one as they drive off. With some pissed off men on their heels, the two set off to the Lake District – Ashley to escape whatever crime he’s committed, and Cooper to finally see some wild ravens. Along the way they pick up the wealthy Becky who seems to fancy Cooper and his oddities, and soon their story reaches the national press. There’s a manhunt underway, but all Cooper can think about is how ravens scavenge at carcasses…

So, while it’s never explicitly stated, it’s fairly obvious that Cooper is meant to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. While this is handled beautifully in some novels, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, unfortunately here it seems to have been penned by someone who once read a pamphlet on the condition and all they took away was the fact that sometimes autistic people develop strong obsessions with one topic. This is played out here with Cooper ticking off all the birds he’s seen wild. Throughout, he’s more interested in the fact he’s just seen a woodcock and a raven than knowing he’s carrying drugs, or is embroiled in some serious crimes. His behaviour seems to be that of two entirely different people, which I guess plays in to the ending, but I found it so jarring to read.

While the ornithological facts that intersperse the text are quite interesting, there’s no engaging plot to hang them on. Cooper is irritating, Becky doesn’t seem deep enough to contain all the facets of the personality she’s supposed to have, and the resolution, as far as I’m concerned, just leaves so many questions unanswered that I was simply frustrated.

According to Amazon and Goodreads, I appear to be all but alone in this summary of the book, with everyone else hailing it as a masterpiece and an exciting new voice, but I was utterly unmoved. If you like birds, read H Is For Hawk instead.

“Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend” by Matthew Green (2012)

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Imaginary friend: not pictured

“Here is what I know: My name is Budo. I have been alive for five years.”

Despite the seemingly unique premise, this is not the first book I’ve ever read from the point of view of an imaginary friend. However, in the other one, the narrator’s identity as such was a twist (hence not giving the name here). This book offers that up on a plate.

This is the story of Budo, an imaginary friend who was brought into being five years ago by Max, an 8-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome (as I understand it – it is never explicitly addressed). Five years is a long time for an imaginary friend to stick around, so Budo is respected and revered by other imaginary friends he meets. Max has done a good job of imagining him, however, and he looks almost exactly like a teenage boy. Max is the only human who can see him and communicate with him, and Budo can have no contact with the outside world.

Budo is intelligent, but has limits. When born, he only knows what Max knows, but since he has been imagined older, he is able to learn things quicker. He understands people and the fact that they don’t always mean what they say, or can’t always be trusted. He has learned these things from watching Max’s parents and teachers when he wanders off. He can then pass this information onto Max.

It’s very hard to describe much of the plot without giving too much away, but the story all seems to be going in one direction before veering off wildly into another in a manner that works, but has you caught off-guard by a red herring. It’s a bit like how episodes of The Simpsons begin with one story only to drop it after five minutes and move onto another one.

Memoirs is much darker than I expected it to be, although it is very cleverly written. Because Budo effectively has the mental capacity of a small boy, he tells the story much as you imagine a child would. As someone who has never had much affection for child narrators (Alice and Lyra come immediately to mind), I found that this worked really well. You could only know what Budo knew, and he didn’t understand some of the things the adults were saying. There is a point, for example, when one of the teachers complains about the “damunion“, a term that Budo cannot understand. It took me a while to cotton on to the fact that she is referring to the teacher’s union: the “damn union“.


Would you like to play a game?

Budo is not the only imaginary friend in the story. Most children have one, but very rarely do they last anything like as long as Budo has. They are also all entirely unique, capable of doing only what their children have imagined they can do. For example, Budo has the ability to pass through doors and windows, but does not and cannot sleep. Others may be able to fly, or teleport. Some are less lucky and have been imagined without arms, or without the ability to speak. Most imaginary friends are fuzzy air from the waist down, and almost none of them have ears or eyebrows. There’s even one Budo meets who is just a large spoon with arms and legs. He’s called Spoon.

The book delves deep and explores one of the greatest fears of the modern world, and Budo too deals with something that has plagued humankind for generations – the thought of being ignored, left behind and forgotten. Having seen hundreds of imaginary friends come and go over the years, he seems consistently terrified that he will be next.

There is a beautiful observation in the novel about teachers, saying that some of them “teach school” and some of the “play school”, the latter being ones who just show up and do the job, but don’t really care about the children and are just doing it for the paypacket. We certainly need more of the former in schools today. I was lucky enough to have several of those during my education, and I’m forever grateful to them for making me who I am today.

The mythology of the imaginary friends is particularly brilliant. It is not a very well explored subject, so Green can take it wherever he likes. I love the idea that they are all unique and can communicate with one another. The idea that they cannot make contact with the human world is nice, makes sense and adds a level of complexity to the whole thing, as when Max gets in trouble, Budo can do nothing to help him out of it. There is a question mark over how the imaginary friends can pass on information to their imaginers that they could have absolutely no idea about, potentially giving the children almost psychic powers. I suppose though that when they said, “My imaginary friend told me” then it would simply be ignored.

If you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this book is definitely for you. If you simply want to discover something unique and meet a cast of quirky, delightful characters, then it’s also worth looking into. It might just change the way that you look at a few things.