by Robert Dunbar
Published by Uninvited Books, 2011.
Robert Dunbar’s previous novels The Pines and The Shore were enjoyable reads but it was his 2009 collection Martyr’s and Monsters which really showed what he was capable of. Intense emotion, fascinating characters and original ideas sprang from that book like water from a burst pipe. Now he has his own publishing company, Uninvited Books and a brand new novel, Willy.
The book takes the form of a first person narrative, being written as a form of therapy (“good practice for reality”) by a “crazy” adolescent. The unnamed boy is in a state of despair, dark, suicidal and unable to communicate, he has been shipped to a special school, a “dumping ground” for difficult boys. For the first fifty or so pages we are confronted with bleak visions of the school and it’s uncaring or worse, sadistic members of staff. Salvation comes in the form of Willy, our narrators roommate. Willy is an even more mysterious boy who seems to float into and through the story, his fellow pupils see him as a messianic hero figure, his teachers are wary, even afraid of him. The novel then unfolds as the boy’s relationship grows. Several adventures with hints of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest crossed with Stand by Me gradually reveal more details and also more mysteries building into a stunning and emotionally intense finale.
Throughout the book new questions are asked but very few are answered. This is an extremely effective device which not only keeps the narration realistic but which allows us to empathise with the narrator. Frequently we are as confused, nervous, tense and excited as he is which forms a deep connection between the reader and the main character. It also allows the book’s sense of mystery to grow, where lesser authors may have revealed more details of Willy’s past history, conflicts with teachers etc Dunbar reveals very little. Only enough to tease the reader and set the foundations, we are left to build our own back-story.
The characters are never less than fascinating. Thankfully the author has avoided the usual aggressive teenager stereotypes and instead concentrated on developing a group of boys who have somehow become disconnected from society and in some cases reality. Blame is not apportioned, details are not revealed but societies inability to deal with these boys and its solution of removing them to a place, well away from “normal” society, is brutally revealed. Of course it’s not just the pupils who are the main characters, the teachers too are revealed as vulnerable, troubled and often just as dysfunctional.
With Willy, Robert Dunbar has taken the plotting and pacing of his earlier novels and added the emotional maturity of his later stories to produce a compulsive, deeply moving piece of work. His best work to date it succeeds on every level to create a challenging yet accessible novel. This isn’t your average horror story, in fact this isn’t a horror story at all. There is no supernatural threat and the only monsters are human ones but it does have the sensibilities of a horror story. It builds on a darkness within us all but is not constrained by genre, in this way it’s comparable to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, bleak, desolate and literate. Highly Recommended.
5 out of 5