Sue Leonard, review of Boy in the World by Niall Williams, in Books Ireland (Oct. 2007), p.216

Source: copied from issue at date.

Since Niall Williams exploded on the Irish book scene with Four Letters of Love, he has continued to push out the boundaries. His last novel, Only Say the Word, seemed to be conventional; but the love story based on grief turned on its head in the final chapters, taking the reader by the throat.

In Boy in the World Williams is tackling larger themes. Basing his book in a world gripped by terrorism, he tells the story of a strange little boy, Jay. It starts in the country Clare where the friendless boy is preparing for his first communion. We learn, at once, that Jay is different; that he doesn’t look like his friends or his grandfather, the master.

Clearly bright, the little boy is obsessed with words. He devours books by Dickens and Robert Louis Stephenson, but can’t make sense of the world around him. And when his grandfather hands on a letter from the boy’s dead mother, his world fragments further. His father, it seems, is still alive. He doesn’t know that he has a son, and, piecing together clues from the letter he initially tried to burn, the boy learns that his father is a dissident Muslim journalist, working for the BBC. The boy feels compelled to find his father to make sense of his own identity and place in the world.

So he sets off for London, but becomes embroiled in a terrorist bomb near Broadcasting House. He’s rescued by Sister Bridget, a nun he’s encountered on the boat from Ireland, and the two of them travel on to Paris, in the belief that they will find Jay’s father there.

It’s a strange partnership. The boy bottled out of his first communion, after the sudden realisation that he didn’t believe in God. But when they narrowly escape being blown up a second time, Jay wonders if he is being saved for a purpose. The two travel on through Germany, arriving at the time bombs explode, but plucked away from danger by the hand of fate. jay ends up in a squat before finding redemption, a sense of purpose and, at last, a place where he belongs.

Williams shows us parallels with David Copperfield, the book Jay carries with him, which impacts so powerfully on the characters he meets, juxtaposed with the relevance of literature, though, are the internet blogs on terrorism that Jay scours in his attempts to understand his father, a suspected terrorist.

This novel centres on Jay’s search for truth; he wants to know why we exist, and, if there is a God, why He allows evil to thrive. He looks at different faiths and, engaging with those he meets, he often finds he has to lie a little. It doesn’t matter, he reasons, if it helps him to find his purpose. The means will justify the end. The secret to all fictions, he had read once, was to base them in part on what was real. And to keep the story true to itself, that is, to keep the details real, and not to seem like you were telling a lie.

Ironically, it was a lack of credibility that blocked out and true enjoyment of this book for me. In making his novel a parable for our times, Williams has made his characters toc remote to attract empathy. I never felt the boy’s trauma. I was impressed with Williams’ lyricism and his grasp of the unusual, but I found this a difficult read, and ultimately, an unrewarding one.

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