February Book Club Part 1: The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson

I run a book club, and each month I will post a review to give you the lowdown on our two titles. I always find these interesting to write because they not only contain my opinions, but show how the book was received by a wider audience – and we sometimes have some real disagreements!

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Without meaning to, I do this thing where I start reading some massive series about two weeks before the next book club meeting. I then get addicted and it’s touch and go whether I can get my set titles read. True to form, I started rereading His Dark Materials with a week to go to the February session and was feeling rather resentful that I was going to have to interrupt my Pullman marathon for a children’s debut. How wrong can you be? I read it in a single evening. I absolutely loved it. In fact, we all did.

Telling the story of a 12-year-old boy who is almost housebound by severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the book is a brilliant, intelligent exploration of mental illness and the devastating impact that it can have on the lives of sufferers and their families. Matthew’s OCD has become so bad that he lives almost entirely confined to the safety of his bedroom, where he divides his time between cleaning it from top to bottom, washing his hands over and over and observing the outside world through the glass divide of his window. His neighbours frequently catch him at it and think he’s more than a little bit weird, his dad thinks he should just snap out of it and his mum is at her wits’ end. Things are spiralling out of his control, until one day a toddler goes missing and Matthew is drawn into the investigation to find him. In so doing, he makes his first tentative steps back into the outside world.

The whole group really appreciated Thompson’s skill in making the complexity of mental health accessible for a wide audience; the writing, a mixture of diary entries, emails and straight prose, is simple enough to keep younger children engaged and interested, while her insightful and searingly honest treatment of serious issues is complex and thought-provoking enough to appeal to older children, teenagers and even adults. One reader made a comparison between the subtle layers of meaning in the book and films that are marketed to children but which often contain subtleties and jokes that are only understood by adults watching with them. Having said that, the book does not patronise its younger readers and things aren’t all necessarily miraculously resolved at the end of the book. As well as OCD, topics like bullying, friendship and family were explored in depth. I particularly loved the character of Melanie, a lonely, slightly quirky girl who lives across the street. Absolutely determined to be friends with Matthew despite his continued efforts to rebuff her, she is one of the only characters in the book to see past his OCD to the boy lost behind it.

We greatly enjoyed the way that two mysteries intertwined with one another as the plot progressed – Matthew’s investigation into the missing toddler (helped along by Melanie and to a certain extent Jake, a seemingly nasty bully with whom Matthew used to be friends) was intriguing and puzzling enough to keep us all guessing until the end and gave Matthew the motivation to try to fight his OCD. The other, more personal mystery is that of why Matthew developed such severe OCD in the first place; this puzzle was kept alive by intriguing hints dropped at regular intervals. I actually found myself as desperate to find out the story behind this as I was to know who took the baby. When the full facts were laid bare, I would be lying if I said I didn’t shed a little tear.

What else can I say? Read it.

Star Rating: 5/5

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