What I Did by Christopher Wakling is not an easy novel to read, both emotionally– it's an upsetting story, and literally– it's written in the voice of a six year-old boy.
When Billy runs away from his dad, and right into traffic, his dad impulsively spanks him; and those events will change their lives forever. A woman sees Billy's father, and reports him.
In Billy's words:
"This is a story about a
terrible thing which happens to me. I have to warn you that nobody is
bad or good here, or rather everyone is a bit bad and a bit good and the
bad and the good moluscules get mixed up against each other and produce
terrible chemical reactions."
That quote from the very beginning of What I Did is the best way to share what reading this book is like. It's most easily compared to novels like Room by Emma Donoghue, or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon because of the unique and young voice of the story, despite most definitely being an adult novel. Like both Donoghue and Haddon's narrators though, I found Billy to be an incredibly smart child for his age. However, at the same time, Billy was also insanely clueless about other things, to the point that I definitely wonder if he was supposed to have some Asperger type tendencies that made it difficult for him to pick up on social cues. Of course, I haven't been in the mind of a six-year-old in a long time– so maybe this is what the average child would do, but I doubt it.
At times, I actually preferred Billy's voice to Jack's in Room. The major reason for that is because Billy absolutely adores David Attenborough and animals and nature documentaries. And I just loved all the animal metaphors and connections, all the random facts. This is also what makes the North American cover a billion times better than the UK one, in my opinion. It also reminded me of those passionate, focused, interests that we have as kids when it seems like there's really only one thing in the world that matters. The only issue with this is that Billy often gets distracted from what's actually going on in What I Did by side stories or memories that mean that the pace of the novel is really slow.
The narrator of What I Did is only one of the components of the novel ready to be discussed. There's also the entire incident that sets off this series of events. Because while the reader is there from the beginning, and knows what led Billy's father to spank him, nobody else is besides the two of them. In a way, it's like a terrible game of broken telephone. But it would also be a great novel for reading groups because I'm sure everyone would have a different opinion about if Billy's father should have spanked him. Obviously, if he'd know what was going to come next, he never would have.
What I Did is an incredibly scary story. It doesn't have gore or zombies or anything supernatural– it's quietly horrifying. I'm not even a parent, but it's the sort of story that, like See You at Harry's by Jo Knowles, is definitely a worst nightmare scenario. And, because of the pace of the novel, it's really like watching a car crash in slow motion. The fact that it emotionally tears the reader apart like that is completely due to Wakling's skilled writing. The story is told from Billy's perspective, and it's clear he doesn't know what's going on, and doesn't know what kind of impact his words are having. But reading the book, you do, and that's what makes it so heart-breaking.
When I finished reading What I Did, I was honestly very conflicted. I really loved the novel in small doses, but as a whole I found it slow and had a hard time digesting some of the misunderstandings that take place. I really just wanted to shake the pages and get the characters to talk to each other... but that didn't exactly help. I did love how, exactly as Billy promises, none of the characters are good or bad. Billy's father is in a terrible situation, but he also makes it worse for himself. Ultimately, What I Did is flawed and complicated, but so are its characters, and that's what makes Wakling's novel such a great source of discussion.