Author: Keith Stuart
Publisher: Sphere (29 December 2016)
RRP (Paperback): £7.99
Almost all of us feel lost at some point in our lives. An existential crisis is seemingly part of life. Why am I here? What’s my role in the grand scheme of things? Is there more to life than this? These questions seem to come to us whenever we’re going through tough times in life. Alex is very definitely having a tough time. He spends all his time working a job he hates to escape his responsibilities as a husband and a father. His son Sam is autistic and Alex struggles to understand what this means for them all. In avoiding his responsibilities at home, his relationship is stretched to the point we join the story – him packing his bags and heading off to sleep on his mate’s crappy air mattress; a thirty-something, reluctant mortgage advisor who runs from any semblance of responsibility. A few days later and the job he’s been hiding behind is gone due to a company merger and Alex is suddenly feeling very lost. Cue the inevitable internal struggle to work out where it all went wrong.
Okay, so Alex seems very mundane at first glance.
Keith Stuart’s debut novel could so easily have ended up as a very mundane story of middle-class self-loathing. But it doesn’t. Instead it soars into an emotional roller-coaster that broke my heart and filled with me joy in equal measure. The real star of this story is Alex’s relationship with his son, Sam, and the other key character, Sam’s autism.
Stuart writes from experience, his own son Zac suffers from autism. His experience pours from every page as he details the kinds of struggles that only the parents of autistic children could truly appreciate. There’s the frustration that Sam doesn’t do things like other children, he is slow to learn, doesn’t socialise well with others, a simple sandwich-filling could trigger Armageddon. The terror that Alex feels being responsible for Sam is palpable. He is continually bracing himself for meltdown. He lives in perpetual fear.
It turns out there’s an additional childhood trauma that amplifies Alex’s fears and his need to control everything. Again, this is brilliantly handled. Showing how different people deal with grief in different ways and how such traumas can shape lives as his mother and sister are shown to have dealt with the tragedy in their own manner.
The story finds its rhythm as Alex and Sam connect through the Xbox version of Minecraft. Stuart, The Guardian’s games editor, again brings his own experiences to the fore here. He has spoken many times of the positive impact Minecraft has had on his own family and here he uses that experience to describe the bonding of father and son. He weaves a wonderful tale of discovery and adventure in the virtual world of Mojang’s block building masterpiece. While Sam is learning to expand his horizons through the virtual world, Alex is learning how amazingly intelligent and creative his son is. The journey of discovery works both ways culminating in a level of understanding that goes far beyond what Alex believes to be possible.
I read this book the weekend after I found out I was being made redundant. It pretty much shattered me into a million pieces over the course of a few hours. (As it happens, I could not have described the feeling of being made redundant any better than Stuart manages in those few paragraphs). It may have been that it caught me at a particularly emotional time but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit it churned me up a few times. Okay, so I saw the ending coming for a few chapters before it got there but my God, it still left me in tatters.
I know this is written from Alex’s perspective but as his understanding grows you can’t fail to have some appreciation for how different the world must seem through Sam’s eyes. Creating an appreciation of what it is to be autistic in a novel is a truly stunning achievement.
I have a feeling there’s more to come from Keith Stuart and I very much look forward to reading what comes next.