Thursday, 13 January 2011

Luke And Jon by Robert Williams

Winner of the National Book Tokens Not-Yet-Published prize, Luke And Jon is the engaging story of Luke Redridge and his father who have moved to a rundown Northern town in England after the sudden death of Luke’s mother. Moving into a dilapidated home on the fells outside the town, they meet Jon, a strange boy who dresses in 1950s clothes and who the local kids call ‘Slackjaw’.

It soon becomes apparent that Luke’s father is hitting the bottle as he tries to get over the death of his wife. Luke spots the evidence; a glass to hand, always; his father asleep at the kitchen table, an inch left in the bottle:

I don’t remember when I started noticing but it got to be that there was always a glass of whisky in his right hand. He held it low and to his side, almost behind his back, so that maybe I wouldn’t notice. When Mum was alive he used to buy bottles of beer, different brews with silly names, ‘Blond Witch’ or ‘Bowden’s Bathwater’, but he never came back with those now, just the whisky... He was still always up before me, no matter how bad he looked. He would be sat in his chair at the kitchen table with the morning sun streaking through the greasy windows, spotlighting his grey face and bloodshot eyes. His shaky hands were always wrapped around a cup of thick black coffee and if his hands were trembling too much he would leave the room and come back a couple of minutes later, less jumpy. I knew he went for a drink and he must have known that, but neither of us let on. He didn’t want me to see him drinking too early that was all.

Luke makes friends with Jon but the boy is cagy about where he lives and doesn’t invite him around. When Luke finally gets to visit Jon’s home he discovers that his friend is looking after his housebound grandparents, one of whom has severe senile dementia. Their house is filthy and Jon is doing his best to keep all three of them out of the clutches of social services. The council eventually catch up with him and Jon ends up in hospital, suffering from malnourishment.

Luke visits Jon with his father who has been so sozzled over the last few months that he hasn’t noticed that there’s been something wrong with his son’s pal:

And we all knew that whilst this was true it was also true that at times during the last few months a hurricane could have lifted our house up off the ground, spun it around in space and landed it in Latvia, and Dad probably wouldn’t have noticed, would have just opened another bottle and poured another glass when the dust settled and the windows stopped shaking.

Luke and his father find new focus in their lives, first by constructing a large wood sculpture of a horse which they secrete into a nearby forest, then by offering to adopt Jon. Williams ends his novel with Luke deciding I think that is enough, and although I felt that there was a lot more that he could have done with the story, it remains a moving debut novel about loss, grief and renewal.

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