Jonathan Trigell’s Boy A won the 2008 Spread The Word ‘Books to Talk About’ competition, an award for books which would make the members of book groups sit up and take notice.
Well, having read it, I can tell you that it’ll certainly do that. Sit up, take notice and come to blows, I suspect. I’ll be able to tell you next week as my book group is reading it. But I thought I’d blog about it today whilst it’s completely fresh in my mind.
Boy A is one of my gold-standard ‘like and admire’ books. An accomplished book whose pages you want to turn very slowly so that you can savour the perfect voice Trigell has found for Jack’s (Boy A’s) point of view but whose pages you also want to rip through to see what happens. Despite its loose resemblance to the James Bulger case, the book avoids sensationalism and, insofar as is possible in a book about child killers, brutality and young offenders institutions (Feltham gets a very bad press), it avoids graphic violence. Jonathan Trigell pulls off the tricky feat of suggesting a lot more violence than he shows and, in the chapters which portray Child A’s time in prison, you fear for him as constantly as he fears for himself.
Actually, the reader is made to fear for Jack’s safety and wellbeing on pretty much every page of the novel and that’s another of Jonathan Trigell’s successes – right from the beginning you share his minute-by-minute fear that he will be found out, that he will be discovered, that he will get something so horribly wrong that his ‘legend’ (for those of you not accustomed to watching/reading spies-go-undercover stories, the legend is the assumed biography or backstory of the person going undercover, or, in this case, being given a new identity) will be seen for what it is, a fictitious life which bears only a passing, sanitised resemblance to Jack’s own.
In a 2005 interview here (Boy A was published in 2004) Jonathan Trigell says:
I wanted to ask a lot of the reader, to see if they can examine their own moral certitudes sufficiently to feel for someone who has apparently done something so terrible.
I certainly felt for Jack from page one. But, actually, I didn’t feel that a lot was being asked of me in handing over this sympathy. From the book’s very first scene Jack is portrayed as a wide-eyed, twenty-four year old child who looks on everything he is provided with on his release and finds it quite marvellous. You can’t help liking him. Even though it’s clear from pretty much the outset (spot the title, for a start) that Jack is a convicted killer, at no point did I feel a twinge of doubt about liking him because he is portrayed without any apparent reservations on Trigell's part as immensely likeable and even moral. Not once does he harbour thoughts of violence to anybody apart from himself. (The possibility which suicide always offers of a way out– ‘the choice’ – is never far away.)
So if he’s so nice, why did he do what he did? Has he been reformed by prison? Hardly. Adult prison is presented as further education for criminals and the young offenders institute which Jack goes to once he has left the secure homes of his childhood is an unremittingly brutal, de-humanising place from which anything resembling redemption is wholly absent.
Jonathan Trigell salves any worries we might have about liking Jack by fudging the question of whether he actually is a killer. Almost to the end, we are unsure of his complicity in the actual murder, though the fact that he was hand-in-glove with Child B, his alleged partner in crime, is not disputed. but I didn't need to have my worries about liking Jack salved. I didn'thave any. For me, Trigell makes it quite clear: Jack and Boy B have been badly let down, their crime is hardly to be wondered at and, when it is played out in front of us at the end of the book, it becomes even more credible and poignant as an act of desperate self-preservation.
The relationship of Boys A and B, two brutalised, bullied, unloved children; children either born as or made into victims, is at the heart of the book. They take refuge in each other, in their joint truanting, in their acts of casual vandalism and petty crime, in their feeling of never belonging. They never talk about what has happened to them, they do not cry on each other’s shoulders, they just know that they are two of a kind and they stick together with the desperation of victims everywhere.
Most of the story of Boy A is told in flashback and this selective picking out of events distances the reader from some of the more awful aspects of Jack’s life. Jonathan Trigell says, in the interview quoted above
I think memory can be more vivid, in terms of painting pictures for the reader, than the actual experience - because the parts that are retained are the significant ones
And that’s certainly true of the ‘parts’ which the reader sees in the book’s flashbacks. We see all of the significant factors which have made Jack who he is without having to be subjected to his traumatising everyday existence. Each chapter is given a letter of the alphabet. ‘A is for Apple. A Bad Apple’; ‘M’ is for ‘Mother. Mothering Sunday’; ‘Q’ is for ‘Queen. Pleasuring her Majesty.’
Everything, from the A to the Z of his life, from his relationship with his parents to his prison experiences, has made Jack what he is. Unspoken, but quietly threading its way through the book, is the conviction that Jack is not – cannot be – intrinsically evil, whatever the tabloids bay about ‘monsters’. Because if he was truly evil – different from the rest of us from his DNA up – he would have been unable to become the good friend, the beloved if confusing boyfriend, the adored ‘nephew’ he is throughout the book.
To have written so sympathetically about Jack, Jonathan Trigell must surely feel that what happened to him was, in some significant way, not his fault. That, given the treatment meted out to him and the multiple failures of the adults in his environment to protect him, something awful was bound to happen. Though Trigell never addresses this issue directly, there is a very telling scene in a chapter showing Jack’s psychologist with her young son. Whilst the little boy (a preschooler) is playing with water in a wheelbarrow, she notices that he is crushing ants on the side of the barrow, picking them up and squishing them between his fingers.
'After a few minutes she stroked the back of his neck and said to him ‘You know that hurting the ants isn’t very nice, don’t you?’
‘Why are you doing it then?’ She wasn’t cross, just curious.
‘You didn’t stop me, Mummy. I thought you’d stop me.’'
In the end, Boy A isn't a tale about Jack’s responsibility (or otherwise) for the death of Angela Milton but about the responsibility society has – and often ignores - to boys like him.