The opening section and the overall premise of Xan Brooks’s debut novel is fascinating. Taken away from the pub she lives in with her grandfather for the afternoon, orphaned Lucy Marsh goes into the woods to meet ‘the funny men’. Alongside four other young people whose life circumstances have left them equally vulnerable, Lucy goes for a picnic with these funny men who she will soon know as The Tin Man, Toto, the Scarecrow, and The Lion. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that there is something sinister about five pre-teen children being taken to the woods to meet with four men who disguise themselves as characters from a children’s classic, but Brooks does a fantastic job of drip-feeding us the necessary information until we come to see the true nature of these interactions and realise that the ‘funny men’ are actually traumatised war veterans no longer comfortable in the real world. He does an equally good job of demonstrating how Lucy and her friends may not see the truth, even when we do.
This opening section is creepy and enthralling, raising questions about the nature of child abusers and those who allow such horrors to go on unnoticed, at the same time as delving into a discussion around the effects of war on the human psyche. It is a difficult balance to portray these abusers with the right amount of sympathy to make us also consider their plight, but the author manages it well for a good while.
But then, in later sections, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint what the point of this novel is. The young characters find more agency, but continue to be used in ways that such young people should never be used. That they take control of this part of their lives and begin to profit from it may have been intended to show them being strong and taking charge, but it actually becomes more troubling as the novel progresses and the author’s intentions become less apparent.
As we move through the story and more characters come into the proceedings, the plot gets muddled and the characters seem to be flailing around a little wildly. We begin to wonder if this is a novel about child abuse, a book about broken war heroes, a swipe at the rich and privileged and the ease with which some of them can enjoy their most twisted desires, or just a slightly crazy tale that is disturbing in its omissions.
Any Cop?: One thing that is clear is that Brooks can write a pretty beautiful paragraph or two. And he clearly has the necessary imagination. It should also be pointed out that there is a heart in his debut that suggests it has the best intentions, even if they do become a little muddled when the cast of characters grows. He’ll be an author to keep an eye on for sure, and this one is worth a look for the opening 100 pages alone.