Once upon a time I was somewhat wary of reviewing or commenting in print upon work by friends. There is always the fear of accusations of cronyism. There is also the worry that happens when you find yourself reviewing work by a friend and you find you have reservations about it. Will you still have a friend? Will you be shunned at the next literary soirée? But I have got over this wariness, somehow or other. I guess I figured life is too short to worry.
My friend Nigel Pickard’s first novel is just published. It’s called “One”. The back cover describes it as “the story of Sol and Kate Roberts, and their struggle to come to terms with their son’s autism….. Love story, coming-of-age novel and exploration of the autistic condition.” This is accurate, as far as it goes, but back cover blurbs only go so far, usually, and this one does exactly that: goes so far but, in a startling twist, not far enough. It actually undersells the book, which may well be a first for a blurb. Anti-hype.
We have had love stories, we have had coming-of-age novels, and we have also had novels claiming to be about “the autistic condition”. We have had, pertaining to the latter, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” by Mark Haddon, a book I read with my suspension of disbelief going through various levels of suspension, culminating in it being not suspended at all. The main reason for that reaction was what I sort of knew about autism from Nigel. His son, Jake, suffers from the condition, and what I know of it, which isn’t much, comes from what Nigel has told me about how he and his wife, Jo, “cope”. In short, I’m not sure I could do what they have done, and continue to do on a daily basis.
We kind of expect first novels to be autobiographical, and this one is, up to a point, but not wholly, and you would be advised to forget that aspect of things apart from the very important fact that the author knows what he’s talking about when he talks about having an autistic kid. But what I found most remarkable about the book was that it transcends its ostensible subject. Okay, it’s “about” how a bloke and his wife cope and don’t cope with their autistic son, Tom. And it’s “about” how the bloke looks back to see if anything he’d done in his past was to blame for their son’s condition. And it’s handled in the most accomplished manner. The writing is smart and lively, and the degree of insight and the way it is articulated will not surprise those who have read Nigel's first collection of poems, "Making Sense", which was published by Shoestring Press in 2003. I’ve now read the novel twice, and it’s very readable. I would say “un-put-down-able” but I’m not sure it's a proper word.
But a couple of nights ago, as I was walking down the road to go and see a band, it occurred to me that what had affected me most about the book was how it hadn’t really made me think about the autistic condition any more than I'd ever thought about it before. It isn't one of those "jog your conscience, increase your social awareness, make you feel glad it didn't happen to you and your kid, there but for the grace of God, isn't life horrible sometimes, surely there's something we can do, I feel a better human being for having read this and found out about this" kind of books. I don’t think novels should aim to do that, or be that kind of thing, and I don’t think Nigel views writing, whether it be a novel or a poem, as that kind of thing either. What the book had made me think about was what it’s like to try and make sense of things, period. And it's a book that leaves a lasting, positive impression -- not about itself, but about what life is, and what it's like to live it.
There are two chapters of the novel available online at Exultations and Difficulties: The Annexe. Click here......
“One” by Nigel Pickard, is published by Bookcase Editions Ltd, and NOT, as they would have you believe at Amazon, by Lightning Source UK Ltd, who were the printers. You can buy the book from Amazon, though, here.