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An Oscar-winner for the screenplay to The Killing Fields, Robinson debuts in the novel with the hilarious and engaging story of a working-class British teen growing up in the 1950s. Book’s end will bring explanations for the behavior of all, but at the start a person might well doubt it—when meeting Thomas Penman, for example, nearly 15 but still preoccupying himself with moving his bowels anywhere but on the toilet and wrapping the results in bags for the discovery and delight of others. This is a boy also (when not constructing bombs) who lies, spies, and eavesdrops obsessively—traits possibly inherited from his grandfather, who likes to —[creep] around in the attic with his penis out.— It’s a credit to Robinson’s Chaucerian skills and enormous human sympathies that he magically guides his material along the cliff-edge of slapstick and, without losing the least bit of its comic spirit, transforms it into the humane, subtle, and moving. Near the seacoast in Kent—with a passel of rather vile dogs as well—live Thomas and his sister Bel, their parents Mabs and Rob, and grandparents Walter and Ethel. Rob, tough and built as if of bricks, is a walking fuse of near-rage, while wife Mabs, sleeping on the other side of the house, guards her own secret silence. Dying now of cancer, grandfather Walter somehow survived WWI (his tale is unforgettable) but lost his one true love—a void in his life that gives him a special bond to young Thomas, this being the case for reasons that will grow clear at last as the boy falls in love, searches the past, gets into terrible trouble, thanks in no small part to his weasely friend Maurice and his outrageously stolid and ruinous parents, the Rev. and Mrs. Potts. Love, youth, and satire delivered with the verve and allure of, say, Amis—the real one, that is, not the modernized Martin, but lordly and hilarious Kingsley.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-87951-914-2
Page count: 278pp
Publisher: Overlook
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 1998