Filler content with runaways

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #32:-

Alex Wheatle
Fourth Estate pb, 274pp, £10

Glenroy, Bullet, Curvis and Carlton, four boys living at Pinewood Oaks, a care home for children just outside of London, decide to run away together, their way of drawing attention to the regime of abuse and sadism that holds sway at the home. It is July 1976, and with summer approaching the boys camp out in the Seven Sisters, a nearby forest that takes its name from a local legend. But the eerie atmosphere of the forest and the lack of any adult authority figure combine to undermine the cohesion of the group, demolishing their already fragile sense of self-worth and driving the boys on to ever more desperate actions, the consequences of which will stay with them into adulthood and beyond.

Part Lord of the Flies in a sylvan setting and part searing indictment of our social system, this is a book where the very real pain of the characters comes off the page. The reader’s emotions are being rather obviously manipulated, but in a worthy cause. A veteran himself of care homes and foster families, writer Wheatle brings a grim authenticity to the conditions he describes, children subjected to cruelty and yet finding a kind of grace in their own rough and ready companionship, behaviour that the outside world would probably judge loutish and yet for these boys the only glimmer of hope. You feel that Wheatle knows the characters, their innermost thoughts and feelings, and loves them for who they are, warts and all, while loathing the system that has brutalised them. Rendered psychologically frail by the harshness to which they’ve been subjected, when let loose in the wild these boys are vulnerable to terrors beyond imagining for most of us. All four are changed by their experiences, two possibly for the better. One of them drifts into mental illness and another embraces violence as a solution for what ails him, both of them finding catharsis in the abandonment of self-control, the adrenaline rush of giving the psyche free rein. Wheatle brings home the truth of the old cliché about childhood being the formative years, demonstrating forcefully the need for respect and consideration to be shown to children. Recommended.

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