Max is aged five, He has autism. His brother Frank is aged ten and is the narrator of Balen’s story. He has no such impairment. The mother of the two boys is the one who best understands Max’s needs. The loving father is also present.
Early in the narrative Frank fails to show his brother the respect and understanding that Max needs, He even uses the unacceptable word ‘retarded’ to describe his sibling. However we should not think of Frank as acting out of ignorance. He knows his language and behaviour are unacceptable. He is acting from anger, frustration and impotence.
At this point a disaster overtakes the family. Balen’s novel now explores the question how the different members of the family cope in the aftermath of the disaster. Special attention is paid to the question how Max’s needs are met in the new family circumstances. Many novels featuring characters with disabilities portray special schools in a negative light, the needs of the pupils largely unmet. Balen in contrast depicts Max’s school in a positive manner. Frank’s account reveals how the school enables Max to develop at his own pace and in ways that he finds appropriate. One notable feature as the story unfolds is a brilliant example of intertextuality with Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, which any reader familiar with Sendak will enjoy.
Laura Carlin’s monochrome illustrations are, it seems, meant to be drawings created by Frank. They combine artistic skill with a childlike element that complements the text.
This reviewer has certain misgivings about the language used to describe the disabled character. It is of course true that such retrograde language and the attitudes that inspire it are sadly commonplace in the real world. The writer is doing no more than reflecting this reality. To do otherwise would be dishonest. At the same time there is a danger that sensitive readers encountering such evidence of prejudice might stop reading. And that would be a pity.