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There is a sadness in the story, but also humour – Margaret von Klemperer reviews The Boy Who Could Keep a Swan in his Head

Published in the Witness (25/06/2018)

Set in the then all-white suburb of Hillbrow in 1967, John Hunt’s novel is a moving evocation of a difficult and different childhood. While the setting might seem strange to those who know Hillbrow in its current manifestation, Hunt’s fine descriptive writing makes it an important and evocative backdrop to the story. But centre stage is occupied by 11 year old Phen.

His real name is Stephen, but he is a stutterer who has more trouble with the letter “S” than any other, so Phen at least offers him a chance to articulate his name. Teased at school by peers and teachers alike, his life is tough. And to compound his problems, his father is dying, slowly and painfully.

His one solace is to get Phen to read to him after school, taking the child into the worlds of Hemingway, Truman Capote and John le Carré, adding colour to the Cold War fantasy games Phen plays in the park while walking his dog. But eventually even his father deserts him in favour of a new-fangled reel to reel tape-deck and non-stuttering audio books.

Feeling sad and supplanted, he befriends a hobo in the park, who tells Phen his name is Heb Thirteen Two, something Phen will eventually decode with surprising consequences which at one point take the reader into what feels like fantasy. But that’s not what it is.

Writing from the standpoint of a child is extraordinarily difficult to do successfully. Hunt makes Phen completely believable, neither too cute nor improbably knowing, as he deals with the tragedy of his father’s impending death and observes with the clear eye of pre-adolescence the behaviour of the adults who surround him. There is sadness in the story, but also humour – Phen’s turn as a tree in the class production of A Midsummer-Night’s Dream is hilarious.

But despite his problems with speech, Phen’s reading has taught him the power of words and given him a love of books. And once he has worked out what Heb Thirteen Two’s name might mean, a new dimension of comfort is added to his life, though Hunt avoids the obvious and the cliched. The ending of the book is deeply moving but the reader can be filled with hope for Phen’s future.

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