‘A joy to read’ – How The Trouble Started by Robert Williams

When Donald Bailey was eight the trouble happened and the police were called.  Donald tells the police ‘I was only playing’, but this wasn’t enough and they wanted to know what he understood by ‘intent’.  Now Donald is sixteen and neither he nor his mother can escape the repercussions of the trouble; not even by moving town.  Donald and Jake, who’s eight, become friends and Donald tries to protect Jake from his wretched life, but Donald doesn’t realise the danger he’s putting them in and the spectre of the trouble rises again.

This is Williams’s second novel.  His first, Luke and Jon, won the Betty Trask Award and the National Book Tokens’ NYP Prize.

This is a wonderful book, full of clear, precise language, the kind that makes you sigh because it’s such a joy to read.  For a short book it deals with huge themes:  childhood, parenting, morality, society’s attitudes to children and the story could have felt heavy and depressing, but it’s not at all.  Williams is far too skilful a writer.  The question the book addresses is whether committing a monstrous act makes Donald a monster.  As we see the trouble and its aftermath through Donald’s eyes we come an understanding of how the boy, now a man, sees and copes with what’s happened.

There are some ugly characters in the story, particularly Jake’s mother who has no time for her son, preferring to go out on dates all night rather than look after him.  Donald’s mother also comes out of the story badly refusing to allow Donald to speak about the trouble to anyone even when he has terrifying panic attacks that leave him unable to breathe.  The only female character to provide Donald some comfort is a fellow pupil Fiona Jackson.  Williams’s description of how they came to be friends I’m sure will resonate with many teenage readers:

“It was easier for us to walk around together than to try and pretend the other person wasn’t there, and over the years we became easy in each other’s company.”

There are some good male characters who are sympathetic to Donald:  his teacher who personally teaches Donald to swim and an old neighbour who gives him refuge when he needs it.  But it is Donald himself who is the star of this story; told in the first person Williams has captured the teenage voice perfectly.  He is vulnerable, naive, thoughtful and imaginative; yet there is a darkness running through him that propels the story and makes it a success.  In order to cope with the knowledge of what he’s done, Donald perfects ‘vanishings’:  episodes where he escapes himself by imagining he has another life as, for example, a hardware store owner in Iowa.  Each of these vanishings is carefully researched by him, but has a limited shelf life as a means of escape and once the vanishing has run its course Donald is once more left vulnerable and alone.

There are many fantastic scenes in this story, but my favourite was a particularly poignant one that encapsulates Donald’s life.  He is invited to his friend’s house where the contrast between his tense and often fraught life with a mother who has her ‘dark days’ with his more privileged friend’s life, whose mother is ‘bright and friendly, coming back from the shops with bags full of expensive things, handing out treats like it was Christmas’, is stark.   From the moment Donald enters the house he is uncomfortable: he’s had to remove his scuffed and dirty trainers and place them alongside his friend’s clean ones, revealing his holey socks; then he experiences their luscious carpet, so deep that his feet sink into it and on an inspection of the family’s books he’s shocked to discover that they are not borrowed from the library. The evening ends in disaster when Donald has no idea how to eat the spaghetti bolognese he’s given.  His friend’s father says ‘Tricky isn’t it Donald?  Do what I do and cut the slippery sods up like this’.  The effect is not to make Donald more comfortable, but less so as the  differences between him and his friends overcomes and eventually alienates him.

In the end the reader must decide how to interpret Donald’s testimony on the trouble:  whether to attribute blame or understanding in the knowledge Donald is a vulnerable character whose life stopped the day the trouble started.

Any Cop?: Absolutely yes.  This is a stunning, emotionally charged book that handles its themes with skill and sensitivity.  Highly recommended.

Julie Fisher

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