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Because I should be writing (my September deadline for the first draft of my next novel is steaming towards us), editing (a wonderful 50,000 word project) and preparing for this talk on Friday...
...not to mention more sock drawer tidying (although I have now progressed onto the vegetable-cum-non-wine-alcoholic-beverages cupboard, thanks to hubbie who has even crafted us a new shelf) my blog hasn't managed to clamber up my priority list this week. But that's OK, because I really want to shout out about this book. It's a life-affirming read, amusing in a dark humour kind of way and terribly sad in places. I read it last summer and still remember it clearly. Just wish I could have met the son and given him a hug. Although, he was 11, so he probably wouldn't have much wanted that...
This is quite unlike any book I've read recently. It isn't so much that the story is unusual - it's been compared to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and I can see the similarities - but it's more the angle from which the story is told. The motivation for 104 year old Lithuanian born, Ona Vitkus, to pack up her bags in search of an entry from 'yours truly' to sit proudly in the Guinness Book of Records, is an 11 year old boy. A record promises a certificate, respect and immortality, after all, and who wouldn’t want that?
Alas, we never meet the boy during his lifetime because he has unexpectedly died whilst riding his bike.
His death is ever present, however, in the hearts and behaviours of the three particular characters he has left behind. The strain on his divorced parents: his mother, Belle, attempting to exist while mourning and father, Quinn, attempting to deal with his guilt, is palpable from the start and I was under no illusions that unconventional beginning aside, this was going to be an emotional ride.
Before his death the boy, who isn't named (and my only gripe with the novel would be that I spent the first half thinking that I must have missed his name) had been visiting Ona on a Saturday morning to do odd jobs for her. Although dragged there initially by his scout leader, the boy carried out the tasks impeccably. Granted, we suspect that this level of perfection may have originally been more about his obsessive attention to detail, something which we glean has lost him a few friends over the years, than a love to help. As we progress through the chapters told from feisty Ona and droll, but guilt-stricken Quinn's perspective however, we learn that the boy was a very likeable soul and his affection for the slightly cantankerous old lady, was genuine. When not only Quinn but also the wife from whom he's been divorced (not once but twice) decide to accompany Ona on this quest for a World Record you know you're in for a bumpy ride.
Quinn is a fairly successful jobbing musician, never short of work, certainly. We learn through Ona's conversation with Quinn as he fulfils the odd-job slot left vacant by his deceased son, that his son felt him to be a very good musician. But Quinn's dedication to his trade is a thorn in his side after his son's death. As far as Quinn is concerned, he wasn't there for him. And of course, living with this once it cannot be rectified is heart-wrenching. Equally as difficult is realising that so distant were the pair, that Quinn doesn't always feel grief for his son. Finding himself learning about his own offspring through time spent with Ona is also difficult to palate. Quinn is confused and flawed and I warmed to him immediately. Just thinking about him and his journey of self-discovery brings a lump to my throat. But it's not all tugs and heart-strings, Quinn's resigned, off-the-wall mode of communication frequently made me laugh out loud.
Ex-wife, Belle is also hurting, prone to sharp retorts and cutting put-downs which upset Quinn more than she may realise, but she has her own issues. After all, she is in a position none of us could bear to be in. Although less likeable at the beginning, she is an equally well-drawn character.
And then there's the writing. This is a book where I was torn between reading on because it's one of those paradoxical stories which is slow moving in essence but also a page turner, and flitting back to re-read a passage of such skilful, evocative writing. It's a traditional style of narrative: pithy comment told through intricate observation of people and behaviours. But using Ona's amusing and often irritated recorded answers to the boy's questions - the easiest way, he'd decided, to chronicle Ona's life-story - not to mention the lists of Guinness Book of Records stats and facts speckling the plot as a constant reminder of the boy's presence, it's an original style of writing, too.
On the surface the story is Ona's. It's about her escape from the shackles of her age after the realisation has been thrust upon her that she has been waiting to die since she was ninety - and yet she's still here. But it's as much a story about the deceased boy and his troubled parents and what they can all learn from each other. And let's not forget the amusing spectacle of the motley crew as they engage in their quest to see Ona in the record books. It's a good romp and a very thoughtful one.
This story gave me goose bumps, brought sobs and smiles and was one of those reminders that whilst humans can be so complex, they are generally rather lovely underneath.
The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood, published by Headline Review. RRP £7.99 (paperback).