a boy made of blocks

Autism is everywhere.

Regardless of the cause(s), diagnoses are increasing and, having grown up with two autistic siblings,┬áI was keen to read Keith Stuart’s ‘A Boy Made of Blocks’, which promised to be┬á‘an astonishingly authentic story of love, family and autism‘.

What’s it about?

Alex hates his job and, essentially, his life. He loves his wife, Jody, and son, Sam, but can’t communicate effectively with either of them. Stuck in the past and held back by his fear – of change, of life, of autism (‘I started to see autism as a sort of malevolent spirit, a poltergeist, a demon’) – he blames Sam for his failures (‘What the hell happened? Sam. Sam happened’) and moves aimlessly through time.

‘I started to see autism as a sort of malevolent spirit, a poltergeist, a demon’

Unsurprisingly, this attitude has caused friction with his wife and we meet Alex as he moves out of the family home into a friend’s spare bedroom. He’s sad and angry but still failing to address the problems which have led to this separation, until his son discovers Minecraft and they begin to play together. Can Alex change his attitudes and approach to Sam? Can playing Minecraft together help this family stitch themselves back together?

What’s it like?

Emotional. Realistic. Humorous.

Initially, Alex is quite an unsympathetic character. Despite his blokey humour (‘Sometimes I accidentally imagine…[two fellow estate agents] having sex, and Paul is on top shouting, ‘We’re gonna exchange, we’re gonna exchange…we’ve EXCHANGED!”), his attitude largely alternates between anger and misery. When he eventually takes steps to move forward in life, it’s cautiously done, and sometimes I wanted to shake him. But. His relationship and exchanges with Jody and Sam are so convincing that this is a true glimpse into the lives of parents who are mostly doing their best but are only human after all. As a parent of small children, I definitely┬árecognised the tenor and fragile equilibrium of the exchanges between Alex and Sam in particular!

‘Sometimes I accidentally imagine…[two fellow estate agents] having sex, and Paul is on top shouting, ‘We’re gonna exchange, we’re gonna exchange…we’ve EXCHANGED!”

Sam is also well-drawn and, insofar as there can be a ‘typical’ picture of a high-functioning autistic child, will give readers less familiar with autistic traits a genuine glimpse into the difficulties handled by those on the spectrum and their carers. This accuracy isn’t surprising, given that the book was inspired by Keith’s own family experiences.

There’s a side story about Alex’s sister, Emma, who has also been deeply affected by the loss of their third sibling, George, but has tackled (or perhaps not tackled!) her own grief by becoming a globetrotter. Personally, I wasn’t particularly interested in her story, and thought the resolution was rather sudden, but it served as an effective contrast to Alex’s approach.

Final thoughts

Ultimately, Alex feels trapped in a vortex caused by the Evil Autism, and, instead of drowning in the chaos caused by Sam’s quirks, has to learn to see past his understandable frustration with Sam and sorrow for them both (‘Poor Sam. My poor boy.’) to see who Sam is and who he’s capable of becoming.

Whether or not you have an interest in autism, this is an emotional read that will have you cheering along Sam, desperately urging Alex to pull himself together and willing Jody to be patient just a little longer.

The ending is nuanced and thoughtful, emphasising that so often we shape our own reality without being aware of it.

Recommended.

Many thanks to the author and the publishers for providing me with a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
‘A Boy Made of Blocks’,
Keith Stuart,
2016, Sphere, ebook