‘A good original idea doesn’t quite come off’ – We Used to be Kings by Stewart Foster

wutbkTom and Jack’s father has gone to the moon. Or so they think. When the Russian cosmonauts he is supposed to be with die, the two brothers convince themselves that their father is stuck out in space and that they’ll have to build a rocket to rescue him. This innocent mission has tragic consequences which lead to the death of the youngest brother Jack, and their mother. Year’s later, on Tom’s eighteenth birthday, another tragic incident forces him to flea the care home that has long been his abode. But Tom isn’t alone. Since only a few days after his death, Jack has lived on in the mind of his brother, conversing with him every minute of the day and becoming a constant companion. Now they must flea and try to find a way to their father all these years after he disappeared.

The novel is told in the first person, although, as Tom sees himself as two people, he is referred to as ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. At every crucial juncture of the novel, Tom and Jack discuss their next move; Jack in the voice of the ten year old boy he has always remained. It’s an interesting idea from debut novelist Stewart Foster; a unique and original way to represent a character with mental health issues, a person who’s hearing voices. Unfortunately, the idea is better than the execution. The voices of Tom and Jack are too similar, and the eighteen year old and the ten year old both sound much younger than they should. This leads to a very simplistic and repetitive use of language that, over the course of nearly 400 pages, gets a little irritating. By constantly interrupting the narrative with Jack’s juvenile questions, Foster slows the pace, and ultimately, lessens the intrigue.

We Used to be Kings also suffers from some plausibility issues. While it is not always clear  where their dad is actually going, the reader knows that the moon story is a cover for something else. It’s a difficult idea to swallow. As the kids watch the cosmonauts on the news, hearing stories over their slow and painful suffocation, their mother never comes forward with the truth. Without any real explanation for why, this is not very easy to believe. When the central premise of the novel is so shaky, it’s hardly surprising that a few other elements fail to convince.

Any Cop?: Sadly, a good original idea doesn’t quite come off. The central premise is an interesting one, and Tom is a sympathetic character, but the overly childish voice and the less than convincing plot devices make this a sentimental and unrealistic read.

Fran Slater


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