On the last day of last year I read and was thrilled by Jonathan Trigell's latest novel Genus, a work of speculative fiction about the future of "designer babies". I gave it a rave review. This review was subsequently read by Jonathan who retweeted it on his own Twitter feed and followed me. I nearly cried I was that pleased. So, Jonathan has two other novels Boy A and Cham, neither of which I had read. The controversial and critically acclaimed Boy A was adapted into a drama starring Andrew Garfield, I didn't watch it because I hadn't read the book as that is the choice I usually make: read the book first.
Boy A is the story of "Jack Burridge" a man who referred to as Boy A in court has adopted said alias upon his release from prison because his true identity cannot be known for his own safety. At the age of 12, he and another boy killed a fellow child and a national furore arose.
In the past I have been critical of the ethics involved in taking a well known crime and using it for the sake of fiction. The ethics and also the originality. A prime example of this is the way in which the back story of the character Joanna echoed that of Josie Russell in the Kate Atkinson novel "When Will There Be Good News?" I didn't like it.
Boy A however is a very different beast. Whereas in the case of the Atkinson and a couple of other novels with similar elements I have read in the last 18 months, the crime is treated in a somewhat tawdry manner, as one more ingredient in the pot, for Trigell it isn't a throwaway nod, it's a real, multi-layered look into a crime which rocked British society. Though Jack Burridge is fictional so much of his story correlates to the original crime that Boy A is rather more a piece of faction beneath which lies both psychological analysis of a perpetrator and a modern social commentary. Boy A is not a sensationalist exploitative piece is my point, but a novel with something relevant and important to say about a crime so shocking it affected the national psyche.
The crime I am of course referring to is the murder of toddler James Bulger by schoolboys Robert Thompson and Jon Venables in 1993. I grew up not far from the area in which he was killed and I remember the local as well as national reaction, and I was only a year older than his killers at the time.
Some of the factional echoes Trigell describes include a Sun campaign to prevent the release of "Burridge" - something which actually occurred in real life. The novel also makes reference to the manner in which many adults gathered to hurl abuse at the police van carrying the two boys, I remember being asked to reflect upon the morality of this in an RE class: Should grown men and women be hurling profane abuse at two children no matter what they had done? Shouldn't they be questioning themselves their politicians and community leaders about the breakdown in society that had led us to this tragic situation? Didn't their behaviour further illustrate unnerving social decay?
In Boy A Jack Burridge is released from prison and tries to establish a new life, a job, friends, a girlfriend, but his past follows him almost as if he were under surveillance from it. Haunted and hunted Burridge will never escape his past actions.
The remarkable prescience shown by Jonathan Trigell in Genus is also bizarrely evident in Boy A. I took main character Burridge to be based more upon the life of Venables than that of Thompson. In the media coverage Thompson was more demonised and Venables depicted as the softer boy who was led along. In Boy A, Burridge only admits a share in the responsibility for the little girl's death when his contact with a kindly support worker is threatened. His psychologist is also hoping for something good to write for the sake of career progression. In the novel, though perhaps not in real life, there is a hint of doubt as to his guilt.
Boy A was published in 2004, in 2010 Jon Venables new identity was blown, he was also revealed to have violated his parole, had been involved in viewing child pornography and was returned to prison. A six year difference between the events of Boy A and a similar yet not quite real life mirroring. With this, alongside the riots of Genus if I were Jonathan Trigell, I'd be a bit worried I was psychic at this point. Boy A also reflects upon the hounding nature of the British press, a hot topic in the UK over the last 12 months.
With its real life counterpart set aside, Boy A is an intriguing novel about the human capacity for forgiveness, individual forgiveness, national forgiveness, and most importantly the forgiveness of ourselves. I was reminded of a quote from one of my favourite films 'The Shawshank Redemption' said by aging criminal Red as played by Morgan Freeman :
I recommend reading Boy A, Sarah Waters called it :Cause not a day goes by I don't feel regret. Not because I'm in here; or because you think I should. I look back on the way I was then: a young, stupid kid who committed that terrible crime. I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can't. That kid's long gone and this old man is all that left. I gotta live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So go ahead and stamp your forms, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit.
I love Sarah Waters anyway and can only concur. But beware if you had or have strong feelings regarding that crime or type of crime, you may find yourself having sympathy for the devil..... 10/10"a compelling narrative, a beautifully structured piece of writing, and a thought-provoking novel of ideas. It's a wonderful debut."