A friend recommended this book to me knowing that I was interested in memoir. She said it was beautifully written, as the caption on the cover also says. As individuals, we all come to reading with our own agendas, a particular way of viewing the world. I hoped that I would be captivated by William Horwood’s story, as I had found myself not engaging with many recent books I had read. But, this one, was so engaging, so compelling, I didn’t wish it to end.
William Horwood was born in 1944 in Oxford England, and spent many years in small town Deal, on the East Kent Coast, the setting for most of the memoir. He says that as an adult, and already a successful writer, he had a clear image of himself as a little boy, and knew the words he’d heard in his head all those years, could be turned by his adult self into that boy’s story. To view him as ‘other’ Horwood changed not only his name but the names of family, and the town he’d come from. This seaside town of Stoning is the place Jimmy knows better than the back of his hand.
The sense of place that Horwood brings to his writing is nothing short of astonishing. While reading, I felt as if I was there with Jimmy on the windswept coast observing the pull and thrust of the water and the people who inhabited the shore. I can see the pier with the flag which was always frayed from the constant wind, the lifeboat tilted towards the shingle and the sea. ‘And down on the shore where the shingle shifted and roared even on calm days … and the longshoremen walking beside the dangerous waves in their thick jackets and boots, searching for driftwood and treasure’. This is Jimmy’s refuge, for he is a frightened and uncared-for child, where home is a living nightmare.
Yes, this is a story of a boy’s suffering; treated appallingly by his mother and others to follow. Jimmy does not even know who The Boy and The Girl are, who come and go from his house, and he receives no understandable answer from his mother, a complex, academically astute person, with no emotional attachment to her son. A man, who may have been Jimmy’s father, who the boy calls The Man That Was, gave him a pair of shoes one day, kneeling down and trying the laces on the small boy’s feet. But one day the man boards a train and is gone, taking with him with the only warmth the boy remembers. Rain pounds down, and Jimmy is in Darktime, a place he finds himself in throughout his young life.
From the very beginning pages I felt Jimmy’s anguish. I quote from the end of the prologue: ‘I was unable to move as the rain drummed into me a terrible fear, enough to stop my breath and freeze my mind. And the fear was this: that when it cleared and I could see through the tears it made on my face, he would not be there to take my hand and keep me safe from Ma, and I would always, always be alone’.
But, as the narrative continues, we meet other people who help better Jimmy’s life. These characters are well-drawn, and compelling. Horwood knows how to keep the reader intrigued with the backgrounds of these characters, which are revealed as the narrative moves along. The characters have depth, are interesting, and we come to like them, as they show kindness to Jimmy in various ways. There is Fisherman Mr. Bubbles, a large rough individual, who is married to a French woman. Jimmy is taught to read by a Mr Boys, and taken hiking by his Uncle Max to faraway mountains. But the most engaging character is the boy’s grandmother who returns from years in Africa to live with the family. It is to her Jimmy turns for affection, and over time the two become inseparable, until the very end.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who is interested in memoir and fine writing.
The Boy With No Shoes, was first published in 2004 by Headline Book Publishing UK.
Other novels by William Horwood include: The Stonor Eagles, Callanish, Skallagrigg; The Duncton Chronicles: Duncton Wood, Dunction Quest, Dunction Found; The Book of Silence: Dunction Tales, Duncton Rising, Duncton Stone; The Wolves of Time: Journeys to the Heartland, Seekers at the Wulfrock; Tales of the Willows: Willows in Winter, Toad Triumphant, The Willows and Beyond, The Willows and Christmas.