James Wilson’s latest novel is a foray into the imagination, an exploration of creativity in perhaps its most raw, exuberant form: during childhood. The Summer of Broken Stories follows Mark, a ten-year-old boy growing up in a countryside village in the 1950s. He lives a charming, somewhat idyllic lifestyle, and delights in bringing his surroundings to life using only make-believe. The novel is a nostalgic look back at an era gone by, an era before technology took over, when the mind was – at least in childhood – one of the greatest sources of entertainment. It’s a long love letter to books, and the power they can exert. It’s all this and much more.
The Summer of Broken Stories is a narrative which breaks stereotypes – both social and in terms of setting. Perhaps most obviously, it challenges perceptions of children. In spite of his youth, Mark is not written simply as a naïve, one-dimensional character. Rather, he’s a protagonist with many facets, with a perceptiveness and sensitivity beyond his years. Crucially, he lacks the judgemental suspicion which perhaps comes with age, enabling him to accept and warm to people who would be shunned by anyone else.
The book also challenges the stereotype of the sleepy, paralytic rural backdrop – a setting often presented as a hub of monotony and perpetual habit. Rather, it becomes a place of adventure, a place where almost anything can happen. It becomes somewhere where the mind as well as the body is set free, and all the stories inside of us can come to life. Fittingly, it is here where the pinnacle events of the novel take place.
The storyline is spurred into action when, during one of his countryside jaunts, Mark meets Aubrey Hillyard, a man who lives alone in an abandoned railway carriage in the woods. In many ways, he may be seen as an older reflection of Mark, a visual projection of what he may become. He too lives on the power of the imagination; like Mark, Hillyard’s mind is filled with tales and wonder. The two quickly become friends, and bond over their shared love of and investment in stories. In this way, the book also challenges ideas about intergenerational friendships; it shows that different levels of physical and mental maturity are not necessarily a barrier to such a connection. Shared interests and passions transcend such borders; indeed, initially, Hillyard seems to be the only one who truly understands the young protagonist.
A new addition to the story comes in the form of Lou, a girl of Mark’s age who shows up in his village. She becomes friends with both Mark and Hillyard, and shares in their indulgence in the adventures that the imagination can bring. However, this does not sit well with the rest of the villagers. They grow wary of Hillyard, a hostility fuelled by suspicion and fear. He becomes the social ‘other’ – someone to banish as quickly as possible. His friendship with the children is seen as somewhat unsavoury, something laced with a latent danger; as Hillyard’s character and identity come under scrutiny, he is soon suspected of being some kind of fugitive on the run from his past. In this way, the book is a story of outsiders and ostracism: a tale about people on the fringes of society. A challenge to narrow-mindedness and preconceptions, it’s a novel with an open heart.
The Summer of Broken Stories lends itself to a wide readership, in that it effortlessly intertwines elements of fantasy, realism, nostalgia-fiction and much more into one compelling narrative. It’s an exciting, unpredictable read – one that almost everyone is sure to enjoy.