This book is not The Book. The Book is in this book. And The Book in this book is both the goodie and the baddie. – Amazon book description
I’m going to split this review into two halves. The first dwells on the positives, the second on the negatives. The positives far outweigh the negatives and they’re not really negative; they’re niggles. Most people won’t notice, care about if they do notice, or accept that some of these things are negatives and just think I’m being a fusspot and that’s fine. I think this is a book worth reading, has something important to say—it’s not just a story—and I think a lot writers who are considering taking a similar tack will learn much from her. Mostly my gripes are with the book’s editing and not its writing.
Adult novels written from the perspective of young children are, understandably, rare. Most people will only be able to think of one, Room, but there are others I’ll mention later. Writing in a voice that’s not your own is tough enough but with a child you’re also trying to conjure up a mindset that most readers will have lost touch with… well, in my case we’re talking almost fifty years ago. I’ve no idea how I thought when I was five. You might as well have the book narrated by a talking rabbit. How does a rabbit think? Not in English for starters. And yet Richard Adams did it and we bought into it; we accepted that if a rabbit understood English then this might be how he might think; we happily suspended disbelief. Well, when you sit down to read Jessica Bell’s The Book be prepared to do the same—this is not a criticism, merely an observation—because no grownup remembers being five. We remember being young but the threes, the fours, the fives and the sixes all blur into one despite the fact there’s quite a gulf between the cognitive skills of a three-year-old and a six-year-old. Bonnie, the five-year-old narrator of The Book, is a work of fiction; she is what Jessica has imagined/decided a five-year-old is like.
In that respect The Book is also a work of historical fiction. Okay we’re only going back thirty-odd years but trying to get inside the head of a five-year-old living in the 1980s is no different than trying to get inside a queen’s head living in the 1680s; it’s mostly guesswork. Accuracy is the goal but even the most dedicated of researchers is going to find there are things he or she has simply got to make up because there’s no such thing as a five-year-old, just as there’s no such a thing as a Glaswegian or a New Yorker; everyone’s an individual and Bonnie is very much her own person. In that respect Jessica’s done an outstanding job because Bonnie leaps off the page as a fully-formed character in her own right and not simply a voice box for Jessica. Doubtless she shares some similarities with the young Jessica Bell—the autobiographical elements to the book are openly acknowledged—but whereas I can see Jessica in her poems (this is especially true of her first collection) I never knew her as a little girl and can only imagine what she might’ve been like. I don’t feel any desperate need to do this though; I’m happy to accept Bonnie as a separate entity.
There’s not much of a story to The Book. This, again, is not a criticism, merely an observation. The focus of the book is Bonnie’s trying to understand adult relationships, specifically those between her mother (Penny), her father (John) who has moved out to care for his teenage daughter (Mary) following his ex-girlfriend’s breakdown and Penny’s new husband whom Bonnie refers to as “my Ted”. The only other significant adult in Bonnie’s life is Dr Wright, her psychotherapist, although why Bonnie’s seeing her is never made too clear. Lots of parents split up and their kids cope just fine.
Bonnie, we learn, was tiny when she was born, 2.55kg [5.6 lbs] and 4 weeks early and statistics do suggest that premature babies can have problems. The areas that have been shown to be most likely affected include:
- cognitive and academic ability (e.g. math or reading disability, intellectual ability)
- language (e.g. delays)
- fine and gross motor (e.g. poor coordination)
- vision, hearing (e.g. visual impairment)
- mental illness (e.g. attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)
Her mother, however, pooh-poohs this:
Your doctor said you would have learning difficulties and react in strange ways to some things. But I think she’s being ridiculous. You are just human. Like all of us. Being premature has nothing to do with anything.
but I can’t see Jessica making such a point of mentioning it unless we’re to pay attention to the fact. Is Bonnie a normal five-year-old? The first question we have to consider is: Is there such a thing as a normal five-year-old? As Tim Love notes in his article Child narrators in adult fiction:
It can be difficult to convince the reader of the narrator's age. Authors often seem to have over- or under-estimated the child, but kids have an irritating habit of not acting their age—one moment they talk like an adult, next moment they sulk like a baby.
There are two instances I’d like to highlight. The first is at the beginning of the book:
My yucky undies drop to the floor and the torlet door becomes a disgusting brown mess. I could do a finger painting in it, though. Should I lick it? Maybe it tastes like chocolate fudge. I know that sometimes things don’t taste as badly like they smell.
Accidents do happen and Bonnie won’t be the last five-year-old to mess herself but in the article Children’s Extension of Disgust to Physical and Moral Events the authors states that “children begin to reject certain disgusting objects, such as faeces, as foods by about the age of 2 or 3” so I don’t accept that a typical five-year-old would consider playing with it or tasting it.
The second instance involves one of the interviews with Dr Wright that pepper the book. The doctor spells out her name in blocks and asks Bonnie what it says:
Bonnie: It says Doctor Wright.
Dr Wright: Wow! That’s fantastic, Bonnie. Who’s been teaching you about silent letters?
Bonnie: Daddy. Because Daddy is smart.
Dr Wright: And so are you, Bonnie. That’s brilliant. Bravo. [claps hands]
Bonnie: [smiles and takes some letters out of the box. She spells: Silent letters are stupid.]
It’s funny but unrealistic. Invented spelling (i.e., phoneme based sounding out, and representation of these sounds, without regard for the correct spelling) is the dominant strategy of most children during this year. Unless Bonnie is exceptionally smart in this regard. Most kids who’ve just started school can just about handle “See Dick run. See Dick play. See Dick run and play,” or whatever the modern equivalent of that is.
Intelligence is a big thing with Bonnie. She’s not ignorant of what the doctors have said about her possible learning difficulties and she regularly points out how smart or not smart people are:
As Mummy says, it’s not rocket science. I guess she’s smart with sumfings. She knows when bodies are smart and when bodies are just pretending to be smart. Daddy is smart. And I think Mummy knows that my Ted is just pretending to be smart. That’s why she always is doing doll’s eyes when he’s not looking and learning about money in his study room.
She also realises that intelligence and common sense are two different things even though she hasn’t the words to express that thought.
Sometimes I think grownups are stupid just pretending to be smart.
The novella is broken into three sections:
- Love is the Beginning
- Love is a Weapon
- Love is Tangible
The first section consists solely of entries from the eponymous Book. In the novella’s acknowledgments Jessica has this to say:
When I was a child, my mother, Erika Bach, and my father, Anthony Bell, wrote in an illustrated journal by Michael Green called A Hobbit’s Travels: being the hitherto unpublished Travel Sketches of Sam Gamgee. This journal is the inspiration for this book. Thank you for keeping it, and blessing me with such an amazing treasure. It will always have a special place on my bookshelf. I must also add that in Part One of this book, there are some excerpts that are used verbatim.
There’re no mention of hobbits in Bonnie’s parents’ book. What they’ve decided to do is compile a diary of sorts:
January 3rd, 1980
I forgot to mention that we are going to give you this book when you’re older, but every time I write in it you want to chew it. I hate saying no to you but you want everything. It’s not enough that you have most things. I also need to encourage John to write in it more. It was his idea. He started it. I wish he would follow through. At least with something that could one day be such a treasure for you
What we get to see throughout these entries is the gradual disintegration of Penny and John’s marriage. Bonnie was born on January 12th 1979. By 28th December 1981, without any explanation, someone called Ted has appeared on the scene and the three of them have headed off to Germany for an extended holiday lasting from May until November. John’s there with Mary on their return but it’s only as the book progresses that we, the readers, become familiar with the whole story and much of this comes from Bonnie and not the Book. I’m assuming that the entries we’re shown are all the entries and not simply selections—that’s never made clear—but my suspicion is that there’s more and we only get to see the relevant pages because Penny in particular seems to do a lot of writing in the Book. It’s clear that John and Penny are not bad parents—they’re certainly (as is the case with most parents) well-intentioned—but they can be a little preoccupied with themselves (and I need to lump Ted in here too). Who would take the time to explain everything to a five-year-old anyway? They tell her as much as they think she needs to know, answer the questions she thinks to ask and assume she understands. Some of it she does but not all. The thing she struggles with most is this damn Book that they all start fighting over.
Back in mediaeval times people believed in black magic. People and things could be possessed by demons. If something new came into their village and bad things started happening then the obvious conclusion was that the thing was evil and should be destroyed. This is the end of the 20th century and through fairy stories and films children are well aware of devils and demons. Bonnie begins to wonder about the Book. One night John asks for the Book but Penny refuses to hand it over:
“Can I have the book?”
“I haven’t finished with it. I was in the middle of an entry when you arrived.”
I don’t think she’s talking about the same entry as I know. But I don’t think doors can fit in that book. Unless they are magic doors. Maybe they are doors that gobble up bodies. Maybe there’s demons in it.
Metaphorically-speaking she’d spot on. The original purpose for the Book’s existence has slipped into the background and Penny especially (who does most of the writing for a long time) has turned the Book into something of a confessional. She’s even made John promise not to read her entries and says she’ll respect his privacy in this regard too. Needless to say Ted’s nose is put out of joint. He wants to make entries too—he’s very much a part of Bonnie’s life and clearly loves her—but Penny won’t have it. Cracks are starting to appear in their relationship and it looks like John’s starting to have second thoughts about leaving his wife. Stuck in the middle of all of this is Bonnie—like all kids she sees and hears (and, more importantly, understands) more than we think they do—Bonnie who is struggling with concepts she doesn’t understand and a language that doesn’t have enough words to express the things she’s thinking and feeling.
Things come to a head eventually and the book ends tragically and swiftly as is often the case where relationships are involved. This reader’s feet were kicked straight from underneath him. After this quick and messy climax we get the third section to the book which serves as a dénouement. John makes an entry in the Book which addresses and attempts to answer many of the questions that Bonnie’s been struggling with while the adults around her have been preoccupied with their own issues. The things that have been bothering her have been things like the perversity of the English language:
“Have you got in-some-knee-ah?” That’s me asking mummy, not her asking me. Sometimes she gets this thing called in-some-knee-ah and it means she can’t sleep poperly. She makes me bring her TicTacs for that too, but I think they’re another kind of TicTac because they look a bit bigger.
I think the body who invented English wasn’t very smart. I don’t understand how the poblem is in the knee. My Daddy said that when we go to sleep, that our brains are having a nap. So that means it has sumfing to do with the head. It should be called in-some-head-ah. I think the ah is like the ow.
Why do adults sometimes speak in “invisible words” or call little girls “ladies” when they’re obviously not ladies or ask questions that don’t need answers or use the same-sounding word to mean two different things or make simple things so difficult or talk about holding things (like love) that you can’t hold? When you think about language it’s nothing less than miraculous that any of us get to grips with it and yet we do and at an amazing speed. But not always fast enough.
As adults we assume a lot. I recall a story about a father telling off his son for being bad and realising some way into the diatribe—as his son’s eyes have glazed over—that his son hadn’t a clue what the word ‘bad’ actually meant. How had he managed not to explain that to him? But that’s what happens. And that’s why this is very much a book for adults because it’s all about the consequences of adult actions.
Before I talk about some of my reservations let’s have a good listen to how Bonnie talks:
I didn’t go to school today so I get to play a shop with Mary all day while Daddy is at work. I don’t rooly understand what he does. But he always is talking about numbers in shapes and the sky, and always is leaving the house wearing the same boring old thing.
Anyway, how the shop game works is that I pull all the medicine bottles out of the bathroom cupboard, and I spread them all pretty on the kitchen counter. Every two minutes, Mary comes in and tells me that she’s not feeling good. So I ask her to splain me how she feels so I can sell her the right bottle. It’s not good to make mistakes with sick bodies because if you do they might be getting sicker.
Most of the time, I don’t really understand the words she says, but I think they’re called SimTims. But that just makes me want TimTams, so I just give her a packet of aspirin to take the pain away and ask her to go to the milk bar to buy me some. She’s good like that. She doesn’t get those silly lines in her face every time I ask for sweets. She just goes and gets them. It’s really simple. I think she should tell my mummy how simple it is.
After a while of playing, Mary gets bored and speaks on the phone. She always twirls the cord around her finger and gets her whole body wrapped up in it. It’s silly. Sometimes I don’t think she’s really a grownup. Maybe she’s just playing dress-ups.
Daddy walks in with a big smile on his face, and Mary skips up to him like a little girl and gives him a kiss on the cheek.
“Did you go to see your mother today?” That’s Daddy speaking to Mary, not me. She nods and does doll’s eyes and hangs her head to the side making a stupid groaning sound. She sounds like my Ted in the mornings.
“I still don’t understand why I should go, Dad. She can’t remember me.”
“It’s just good to keep touching base.”
I don’t know what sports has to do with what they are saying but it sounds serious. It always sounds serious with grownups.
I haven’t been around children in a long time and I honestly don’t think I’ve spoken to a child as young as five in about fourteen years. And yet in my head I have a picture of what a five-year-old should act like. The differences between a four-year-old and a six-year-old are significant and if I’m being honest what I have in my head is a fuzzy picture of a kid; they’ve all blurred into a mush of childishness.
Kids Say the Funniest Things used to be a TV programme in the late nineties and I had a look at a few of these on YouTube and then just followed my nose to try to get a feel for what a five-year-old sounds and acts like and they were all more articulate than I expected. I had an image of Morwenna Banks in my head doing her little girl (which I’m sure owes a lot to Lily Tomlin’s ‘Edith Ann’) and, of course, there are clips available of both of these.
As I mentioned at the start Jessica’s not the first author to have a very young child as a first-person narrator. The book most people will think of in this regard is Emma Donoghue’s Room which I hadn’t read although there are others—In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes and What I Did by Christopher Wakling both have six-year-old narrators—but the book I was most familiar with was The Way the Family Got Away by Michael Kimball who has two very young children as the narrators; no ages are mentioned by I would guess five and three and the action mostly takes place in the back of a car. I read excerpts from each of these books and was surprised by the differences in voice. Kimball, in my opinion, has the most realistic narrators even if it’s not the most exciting (or easy) read.
I looked up to see what the cognitive norms were five-year-olds. According to what I found online (opinions differ) by the time a child reaches school age he or she will have a spoken vocabulary of anything between 1500 and 2200 words although they’ll be able to understand about ten times that number, they’ll be able to count and write numbers up to ten (maybe twenty), will be able to spell simple words like ‘cat’, ‘dog’ and ‘hat’, will generally speak in short sentences five to eight words long and will know their own address and phone number. It was the sentence bit that got me because all the kids in the videos—all the ones where they weren’t being difficult and being monosyllabic brats or just shrugging—were constructing far longer sentences although to be fair many were just strings of short sentences joined together with ‘ands’. Here’s a good example, five-year-old Jackie talking about The Dark Knight although what her parents were doing letting her watch The Dark Knight I’ve no idea:
I mentioned New York and Glasgow earlier because I’ve written stories where my narrators have strong accents and know just how hard it can be to find the balance between accuracy and intelligibility. There are no dictionaries we can refer to that give us consistent spellings and so we end up having to create our own eye dialect which is the literary technique of using a nonstandard spelling to imply the pronunciation of a given word that is actually standard, such as wimmin for women. The technique when it comes to replicating how children speak is exactly the same. For example, because children have difficulty with the phoneme ‘th’ they’ll say somefing instead of something; this is called th-fronting.
Children generally learn the less marked phonemes of their native language before the more marked ones. In the case of English-speaking children, /θ/ and /ð/ are often among the last phonemes to be learned, frequently not being mastered before the age of five. Prior to this age, many children substitute the sounds [f] and [v] respectively. For small children, fought and thought are therefore homophones. As British and American children begin school at five, this means that many are learning to read and write before they have sorted out these sounds, and the infantile pronunciation is frequently reflected in their spelling errors: ve fing for the thing. – Wikipedia (bold mine)
Here’s a sentence from The Book I had some problems with:
I reach in and I pick up three little chocolate eggs and I hold them above my head and I scream “Eureka!” because I learnted in school that some man in histories said this when he found sumfing rooly important and that in some other language, I forget which one, that the word means “I found it.”
If Bonnie is going to say sumfing she’s also going to say free instead of three and why doesn’t she use the homonym sum instead of some earlier in the sentence? In several places she breaks up words like I-scream and in-some-knee-ah. I’m not convinced she’d spell eureka correctly. (You-reek-ah maybe?) Jessica says:
[A]ll these 'spellings' were actually things I discussed in great detail [with my editor] and purposely decided to vary. And the reason I didn't have the adults correcting Bonnie, was because I wanted to show how self-consumed they were.
Fair enough but I can’t imagine any teacher would be talking about Archimedes to a bunch of five-year-olds. It’s not impossible, just unlikely. There’s an aside in this sentence and I doubt any five-year-old would use them even in a sentence fifty-six words long. The only text I could find online that highlights the use of asides refers to children between nine and eleven. Even accounting for four ands this sentence is too long and convoluted. The word learnted sounds cute but in all the videos I watched none of the children used expressions like this. A younger kid might. It’s acceptable for a five-year-old to mispronounce a word—when Bonnie says rooly she’s thinking really—but screwing up tenses (or using an adverb in place of a noun as she does when she talks about the badly) is unrealistic unless Bonnie is behind for her age. If that’s the case when Dr Wright spells out her name on blocks could that exchange have taken place?
Another minor irritation while reading was inconsistent spellings. I can assure you that when writing in a dialect (although what we have here is more of an idiolect) these happen all the time and it takes constant rereading to pick them all up. For example, once Bonnie uses maded, a second time maked and a third time made but there were half a dozen others that I suspected were missed in the editing. I asked Jessica about this:
[T]here were cases where I purposely left inconsistencies in spelling too. I actually have a video of myself when I was five and I changed the way I said words all the time. So to me, in my experience, this is only natural, as Bonnie is still learning.
Does any of this matter? I suppose it depends who you are. I’m a writer and I’m afraid I can’t turn that off when I’m reading. From the responses I’ve seen online I can see that no one else was even slightly fazed by the language here which brings me to an important question: Does a child narrator’s voice have to be authentic? This question was asked of four authors on Claire King’s blog and this was Chris Wakling’s response:
A child-narrator’s voice must be convincing, but that’s not quite the same thing as authentic. All fictional voices are constructs in the end. Has a real whaler ever thought quite like Ishmael in Moby-Dick? Are teenagers ever as unwittingly funny as Adrian Mole? Who knows whether a serial killer ever noticed what Patrick Bateman tells us in American Psycho?
These voices are sustained and consistent inventions. They feel ‘real’ while we’re reading them, but they’re not the result of real whalers, teenagers or psychopaths dictating their stories. (They’d be duller and less coherent if they were.) A child-narrator has to stand up to the same benchmark of authenticity.
In that respect Bonnie does have an authentic voice and, editorial choices aside, it is a consistent voice. Is it real? Maybe not as ‘real’ as I would’ve liked but it’s realistic. If this was ever dramatized I’m sure we’d see quite a few changes in the dialogue but this is a book and the rules aren’t normally so strict here. I think the text here stands on a par with Emma Donoghue’s Room. That said, after reading a few pages of that book I also have valid criticisms of her child Jack’s linguistic and cognitive abilities: what five-year-old understands the concept of negative numbers or can count into the hundreds? But, as I’ve said, all kids are unique and there is no such a thing as an average, common or garden five-year-old. In some respects Bonnie’s too smart for five whereas in others quite immature. The important thing is she feels real and that’s quite an achievement.
Last November Jessica posted this entry on Facebook:
Once again this is an observation and not intended as a criticism because the gripes I’ve mentioned are things that should’ve been caught in the editing process. These days I don’t write this quickly but I have done in the past and it’s a joyous thing to have words pour out of you like this. I don’t know how much rewriting was involved but the book is nicely structured and probably the perfect length for the material; much more would’ve felt like padding. For me two months is ridiculously fast but not all writers are me:
I wrote it in November, let it sit for three weeks, wrote a second draft, sent it to beta readers, wrote a third draft, sent it to an editor, and THEN put it out. In my mind, that is not rushed.
Not everything is answered but not everything needs to be answered; also there were points that I picked up on the second read and, yes, even when you know how things pan out this is worth a second run through because despite not having much of a plot it does have a plot and you will want to know what’s going to happen and will probably read it too quickly. The answers that do come arrive piecemeal and so we have the pleasure of a picture coming gradually into focus. The book skimps on lengthy descriptions—off the top of my head I couldn’t even tell you what Bonnie looks like but it doesn’t matter—and that’s definitely a plus of having a very young narrator. Surprisingly Bonnie stays on-topic more than I think would happen in the real world but if you’re going to have a kid narrate a whole book, albeit a short book, you have to be practical. In the videos most of the kids had adults there to keep them on track by offering prompts and to a certain extent that happens here too.
Bottom line then: this is an excellent book and well worth a read. Judging by the other reviews I’ve read I’m not the only one to think so either; my wife certainly enjoyed it. Also, if you do decide to go with the paperback rather than the ebook, can I just say that this is a lovely book? It feels nice in the hand, the paper’s good quality and—and the older I get the more this is an issue—the font is a decent size a well-spaced. As more and more people are being swayed towards ebooks—not that that’s a bad thing by any means—if you are going to bring out a paperback, you really want it to tick all the boxes and this does.
I’ll leave you with the book trailer: