Book review: How The Trouble Started by Robert Williams

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When your fiction debut was a prize-winner there must inevitably be a weight of expectation on the publication of your second novel... so it’s pleasing to report that talented Clitheroe-born Robert Williams is moving onwards and upwards.

His young adult novel Luke and Jon, an impressive coming-of-age story set amidst Lancashire’s remote Bowland fells, caused quite a stir in literary circles and Williams returns to the same theme of childhood in How The Trouble Started.

His gripping story centres around the 16-year-old narrator, Donald Bailey, whose life changed forever when he was involved in a shadowy incident eight years ago involving a two-year-old boy who lived nearby.

It’s a dark tale about loss of innocence, the corrosive effects of guilt, society’s views on morality and the insularity and loneliness of both children and adults which can lead to a distorted interpretation of motives and actions.

It could be the relative proximity of his own youth, or maybe a perception way beyond the normal remit, but Williams’ gift is to express keenly and with searing insight all the bewilderment, fear and wild imaginings of childhood.

Donald can’t forget the ‘trouble’ that happened when he was eight, the day the police arrived, took away his trainers and drove him to the station to answer questions.

A lady in a business suit, his mum, the police ... they all wanted to know what had happened and all he could tell them was that he was ‘just playing outside and it went wrong.’

Even then, he knew not to say too much because ‘words could get you into trouble, words could trip you up.’ Now, eight years on, he can’t remember all the details of those early days when he tried to comprehend the outcome of his actions, but he can recall what he was wearing when the police told him.

Apart from weekly visits to The Happy to Be Here Centre, life went on as normal for Donald and his mother. Only, life was never really going to be normal for either of them again.

And leaving their home town didn’t help. Neither could forget the traumatic events, and suspicions lingered on. His mother, never sociable at the best of times, became a virtual recluse while young Donald found an escape from the darkness by his ‘vanishings,’ mental journeys into make believe worlds of spaceships, foreign travel and adventure.

Mum told him to keep the door shut on the past, and she watched him like a hawk to make sure he never opened it.

But life has taken a new turn... Donald has befriended Jake, who is eight years old and terrifyingly vulnerable. Jake is small and Donald knows how easily he would ‘break.’ As he tries to protect him, Donald fails to see the most obvious danger.

The old ‘trouble’ might be closer than he thinks...

Williams’ simple, tightly controlled prose belies a wealth of literary sophistication while his compassionate understanding of human frailty, his ability to play with our emotions and the now characteristic warmth that informs his portrayal of those on the edge of society cannot but tug at our heartstrings ... and conscience.

How The Trouble Started sees Williams slip effortlessly into a higher gear. This is a classy, compelling, intelligent novel, demonstrating with style and wisdom how we are all shaped by our past. To escape it is impossible, but to understand and accept it is redemptive. Only then can we handle the present and contemplate the future.

(Faber, paperback, £12.99)