Why fictionalise the world around us when a novel can never keep up with the speed of contemporary events?
My novel came to me in an instant: a nine-year-old boy, his mother’s empty bed, the messy house, the clues she’s left amongst the chaos. The story happened right there, where I lived, in a south London chimney-pot terrace; and right then, in 2012, in the waning glow of the London Olympics and the deepening shadow of the coalition government’s austerity policy.
Not that I wanted to write a political novel. Nor did I have grandiose ambitions to capture the spirit of an era. I just wanted to thread my characters into a tapestry of my own present-day life, in which they would appear truly authentic. A longtime diary writer, I have a habit of recording the present moment – a habit that gives me great pleasure. Deciding that the setting for the novel was the here and the now made the project feel easy and enticing: like life writing, but with a fictional narrative, and from a nine-year-old’s point of view.
The chapters poured out. Jonah lives in a house that was pretty much my house. The local shops are more or less my local shops. Jonah’s mum has taken up yoga. A girl in his class loves Justin Bieber, and her Croc-wearing dad is crazy about some ancient guy called David Bowie. Jonah plays Super Mario with his younger brother on their Wii. He’s interested in particular things in the news: the discovery of a new particle in the Large Hadron Collider; the landing of the NASA rover Curiosity on Mars. He and the other kids all use words like ‘buff’ and ‘random’ and ‘badman’, and their heroes are Olympian athletes. Jonah’s hero is Oscar Pistorius. He sees him run at the London Stadium in Stratford, and has a poster of him blu-tacked to his bedroom wall. Oscar becomes Jonah’s ‘imaginary friend’: he talks to him silently about where his mother might be, and who might know. But as I wrote, and the action of the novel rolled on into 2013, real life rolled on too. As I finished the first draft Oscar Pistorius was charged with murder.
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