Protagonists on the autism spectrum have featured in some outstanding young adult novels, notably The London Eye Mystery and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. So it’s inevitable that Marcelo in the Real World, told in the first person by a boy with Asperger’s, will invite comparisons with some of its predecessors. And on the whole, this second novel by the US author of acclaimed debut, The Last Summer of the Death Warriors measures up pretty well.
17-year-old Marcelo has spent his most of his childhood at a cosy private school which caters for kids with special needs. Now though, instead of a planned and longed-for summer working with the school’s horses, his lawyer father (‘There’s nothing wrong with you. You just move at a different speed than other kids your age’) insists he take a holiday job at the firm where he is a partner, so that Marcelo can experience a ‘normal environment. Dispatched to work in the post room with the enigmatic Jasmine, Marcelo must get to grips with ‘real people’, which means shaking their hands, looking them in the eye, and making small talk. But being in the ‘real world’ also means first encounters with anger, jealousy, lust, lies and treachery. Before long, Marcelo is grappling with some fiendish moral choices and the butterfly stirrings of first love.
Francisco Stork certainly gives the reader a vivid sense of the minefield that even the most ordinary human interaction presents for those on the autism spectrum. What this novel tackles particularly well are the spiky subjects of sex and young love, confronting them head on to show how excruciatingly difficult they are to fathom for those who find the emotions of others hard to decipher. Occasionally I found that Marcelo’s very particular voice failed to ring quite true. And the meditations on life and God from the female rabbi in whom he confides pour out rather too glibly, particularly towards the end. But in the main, this is a convincing and enjoyable novel, which enables us to compare those who walk on eggshells, with those who speak their minds.