A Boy Made of Blocks is a debut novel by Keith Stuart and is inspired by his experience with his own autistic son.
In the book, Sam is eight-years-old and only recently diagnosed with autism. The trauma of bringing him up – described early on as ‘he (Sam) was like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas – small, funny but at the flick of a mental switch, easily capable of extreme and demented violence’ – has reached crises point with his mother, Jody and his father, Alex living apart in a trial separation.
Alex has never connected with his son and mostly left Jody to care for Sam whilst using his job as an estate agent as an excuse to avoid the family home.
The book is told solely through Alex’s first person point of view and I personally felt this is flawed on two levels. Firstly, it restricts the novel to the character of Alex and although we see Sam and Jody through his eyes, I would have enjoyed a direct view of their world through their eyes. As it is Jody becomes rather stereotyped and typecast.
Furthermore, Alex’s initial self-pitying, self-absorbed litany (admittedly often self-depreciating and funny) does at times become tiring. It is only as the novel develops that he is redeemed and finally becomes a likeable character with whom I felt empathy.
It becomes increasingly obvious that Alex’s relationship with the world is almost as alien as his son’s. Alex’s isolation and loneliness is not as a result of autism but started the day he saw his older brother killed by a car when they were children leaving school. A day and a death he has never come to terms with and that eventually tore the family apart, driving his sister (Emma) into a life of a globe trotter, never settling down with anyone, anywhere.
The transformation of Alex and Sam’s relationship and of their lives as a whole occurs as the result of Minecraft – an impulse purchase by his wife to help Sam fit in with his peers at school. Based on the author’s real-life experience with his son and with his own in-depth knowledge of the gaming industry as a writer, it is only with the introduction of Minecraft that the book takes off. (As well as helping provide the title of this book!)
Minecraft acts like an extended metaphor throughout the book – the more Sam interacts with the game, the more he becomes connected to Alex and the world as a whole. The games’s low and high points – its hell, demons, creepers and finally treasure – mirrors their lows and highs in real life. Whilst staying at his best friend’s (Dan) flat, Alex joins Sam in the virtual world of Minecraft and together they start ‘chatting’ for the first time in Sam’s life as they build and build. It is this journey that finally causes Alex to see his son as a real person and not merely as a problem to be handled. ‘I saw Sam as an obstacle, something I’d have to work around. But that was wrong. Sam was the guide. Sam was my guide.’ Finally Alex realises they have more in common than he ever imagined.
The beauty and magic of the world of Minecraft is brilliantly and descriptively explained, weaving its way through the book as it widens the world for Sam.
The ghost of Alex’s brother refreshingly haunts the pages, recounting the events of their childhood lives and also providing an amiable side-plot through the possible romance between Dan and Emma. An aunt adored by Sam and to whom he naturally connects.
The tense in the book is unusual as it is present tense throughout and brings a sense of immediacy and involvement with the story.
A Boy Made of Blocks builds to a satisfying exciting conclusion, with me rooting for Sam along with the rest of his family and friends.
Overall, I like this book a lot but curiously enough I don’t love it. It is very well written and constructed. The start lacked the fizz and unputdownable factor of many other books, although it did pick up and I am very glad to have finished it.
Sam is pivotal for the story and the success of the book – at times I felt he was the only one making sense of the confusing mess of this world. He has depth and immediately likeable, personable and always original. Sam shines through for me. The lesson he has learnt is applicable to us all: ‘Life is an adventure, not a walk. That’s why it’s difficult.’
I received a free copy of this book from the NetGalley in exchange for a honest and impartial review.
Rating: 3.7 out of 5 stars.
Publisher: Little Brown Book Goup UK
Publication Date: 1st September 2016
Price: £ 6.99 Kindle – Amazon UK
£ 7.99 Paperback – Amazon UK
$ 20.41 Hardback – Amazon US