Robert Williams is the author of Luke and Jon, a young adult/crossover novel which I loved. How The Trouble Started is his second novel and can be found in adult fiction, however, there is a definite continuation of theme and style in this story of guilt, isolated children and single parenting.
Donald, the first person narrator, is 16. He lives with his mother in Raithswaite, a place they moved to after “the trouble”. We immediately learn that at 8 Donald was involved in an incident in which a 2 year old died. We don’t know how it happened, or how culpable Donald was. He returns to school afterwards but the harassment he and his mother consequently receive results in their move. Donald’s mother is resentful, veering from silent admonishments to loud, angry outbursts in which she rages at Donald for everything and anything. She demands he doesn’t discuss what happened with anyone for fear of reprisals. The incident is the silent burn between them, and the barrier between Donald and the rest of the world.
Inescapable guilt overwhelms Donald to the extent he learns to perfect “vanishings”; imaginary lives in which he is a whole other person, not the boy who killed a toddler. He attempts friendships but feels too awkward and different. In a wonderfully achy part of the story Donald describes his one and only visit to his two schoolmate’s houses. His sense of wrongness is reinforced by the luxury of their homes, the warmth of their parents.
“Even their mums made me feel out of place. They were bright and friendly, coming back from the shops with bags full of expensive things, handing out treats like it was Christmas.”
After that he distances himself from them and, apart from Fiona, (the only sympathetic female character) a neighbour who he occasionally walks and talks with, is a loner.
When he sees 8 year old Jake in a playground, not fitting in, not dressed in the right clothes, he talks to him and they form a friendship of sorts – Donald making up scary stories, taking him to a spooky deserted house, buying him a can and sweets – and we worry about his intent.
The fragility of life is never far from Donald’s mind, or ours. The story is short (I pretty much finished it in one go) and as I read on I couldn’t predict how it would conclude, I only knew that I had a worried feeling throughout and I wanted to know how it would end. Taken at face value Donald is extremely naive and his actions become increasingly hard to justify.
When we learn the truth of the “trouble” it’s satisfyingly murky and neither Donald or the reader is sure which of two memories is the real one.
Williams is excellent at capturing kids that don’t fit; the alienated, the sad, the guilty. His mothers are absent even if they are physically present (in L&J the mum is dead) and neglect their sons. Boys are left to deal with the cruelty of the world, of school and other kids, alone. Occasionally an older man (teacher, neighbour) will show some much needed kindness. With his clear prose and easy voice Williams is able to touch on huge subjects like mortality, memory, guilt and intent without it ever feeling laboured or difficult.
“… every second I was alive he wasn’t. That every time I looked at the sky, stroked a dog, ate a cake, ran a race, drank a drink, read a book, went to sleep, cleaned my teeth, combed my hair, woke up, sat down, stood up, he couldn’t. And all the things he couldn’t do, his mum and dad were there to see him not doing them.”