"Novels like this one don’t come along all that often."
Novels like this one don’t come along all that often. We should know; we read dozens of stories every year for this book club. So when one comes across something that is truly different, wonderfully original, and uncomplicatedly good (as in a thoroughly absorbing, page-turning read) there is an unmistakeable and pleasurable rush of blood to the head.
A Boy Made of Blocks is the story of Alex and Sam. Alex is Sam’s 30-something dad, going through an uncertain separation from his son’s mother, Jody. He’s also about to lose his job. It’s not a good time, not least because of his fractured relationship with eight-year-old Sam.
Sam has, in the current parlance, ‘issues’. Four years earlier he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This translates to the fact that he is deeply unhappy at school, has limited vocabulary and is clearly ‘different’ from his classmates. It has become clear that Sam sees the world through a very different lens from most others: but it’s not a distorting lens: Sam sees things with a kind of brutal realism that he finds almost impossible to describe.
But his father doesn’t make a bad job of it. ‘Autism is a kind of intense, very centred version of how we all feel, of the anxiety we all have,’ he explains. And that insight into his beloved little boy’s mental state (I say ‘beloved’ because that’s what Sam is to Alex; his adored little boy whom he yearns to find a way of communicating with) is typical of this novel’s taut, insightful description of autism. In fact, it’s something of a triumph.
"It is warm and tender and utterly engrossing. You’ll love it."
Keith Stuart knows of what he writes: in 2012 one of his two sons was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. At first, the ramifications of that seemed almost impossible to absorb. Communication with the boy would inevitably be difficult, fractured, and blanked… wouldn’t it? Autism would surely withdraw Keith’s son into his own closed, private world.
But waiting quietly in the wings was a way to connect father and son, courtesy of the age of information technology (IT): a virtual language that the child and adult might share.
Fortuitously – perhaps significantly – Keith is a veteran computer games player. He’s made his living writing about them for 20 years, initially in niche magazines, but more recently in the mainstream pages of The Guardian, where he is Games Editor.
The specific game that allows Alex and Sam to communicate and bond together is Minecraft. I must say, speaking as a woman, it sounds a fundamentally male concept. Minecraft sees father and son enter a virtual world where they encounter zombies, so-called ‘creepers’, and must overcome all to achieve the game’s principal purpose: to construct ambitious structures built out of blocks (hence the novel’s title). It’s a sort of virtual Legoland with monsters.
Ultimately, this is a book about a worried, tense, and confused adult learning to let go, go with the flow, and perhaps most importantly, re-discover the timeless childhood lesson of the importance of play. It is warm and tender and utterly engrossing. You’ll love it.
Here are a selection of the reviews for A Boy Made of Blocks
"Funny, expertly plotted and written with enormous heart. Readers who enjoyed The Rosie Project will love A Boy Made of Blocks – I did"
"Very funny, incredibly poignant and full of insight. Awesome."
"A great plot, with a rare sense of honesty"