A unique adventure and a very personal and emotional one. I loved it

A Boy Made of Blocks: A Novel - Stuart Keith

Thanks to Net Galley and to Little, Brown Book Group UK and Sphere for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

This is a unique book. Yes, I know all books are unique in one way or another, but this book is unique because it deals with something that is always going to be unique to the person experiencing it. If being a father doesn’t come with an instruction manual, being the father of a child within the autism spectre not only comes with no instructions, but it also shakes and spins around the world of those involved. Keith Stuart, the author, draws from his personal experience of fatherhood (his son Zac was diagnosed with autism when he was seven years old) to write a fictionalised account of learning to know your child in his or her own terms.

Alex, the protagonist, is a man in crisis. His relationship with his wife is so problematic that at the beginning of the book she’s sent him out of the house on a trial separation. He spends most of the book at a friend’s, Dan, with whom he shares childhood experiences and a trauma that has marked him more than he is willing or able to acknowledge.  Alex is a good man trying to do the right thing, but unable to explore his own difficulties, or to acknowledge how his inability to let go makes it impossible for him to help himself and others.

He is confronted once and again with the need to be different, to try and listen and learn. And he discovers an ally in a computer game, Minecraft. The author, who reviews computer games for several publications, has talked about his  experience of sharing the game with his own son and how that allowed him to show his creativity and to share a safe space with others. Although I’ve never played Minecraft, the descriptions of how the game works and the effect it had on both, Sam (the boy in the story) and his father is well rendered and easy to follow. The game and its effect over Alex also allows for some truly beautiful and insightful moments. Witnessing Sam’s sheer joy at understanding the rules of the world around him and being able to use them to create a new order and to have meaningful relationships with others is a great moment that the reader shares with Alex. He makes mistakes, he can be jealous, possessive, and cowardly at times, but he eventually does what is best and dares to push himself. As he states towards the end, his son guides him and shows him the way. If at the beginning Alex sees Sam as a problem he doesn’t know how to deal with and can’t see a future for him, by the end everything has changed. He discovers that Sam understands more than he ever realised and also that he is his own person. And a pretty impressive one at that.

The novel, written in the first person, makes us see and share the world from Alex’s point of view, and although we might not always agree with what he does, he is a fully-fledged human being, with his weaknesses and his strengths. We get to care for him, as we care for all the rest of the characters, who are also complex, confused and glorious human beings.  There are the small family dramas, the highs and lows of everyday life taken to extremes, and they all rang true to me.

I have no children and my experience with children and adults within the autistic spectrum is mostly professional (I have worked as a psychiatrist and have some experience in an Asperger’s service) but I would happily recommend this book to anybody with an interest in the subject, whether they like or not to play computer games, or to anybody who enjoys novels based on characters and their experiences (rather than action and adventure), and who are happy to be exposed to extremes of emotions (yes, I did cry, sometimes happily, others not so much). It is a beautiful and heart-wrenching book at times that ends up in a hopeful note.  I loved it.