Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Book Review: 'Wink' by Rob Harrell

'Wink' by Rob Harrell tells the story of a pre-teen boy who is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, one which has attacked the gland that produces tears. It is a book that made me both laugh and cry in equal measure and it deserves a huge audience.

Imagine if you will, a less saccharine version of RJ Palacio's hit MG novel 'Wonder' - that's what this is. It's all very real and very raw which is not surprising since it is semi-autobiographical in a sense: the author was inspired to write the book after suffering the exact same cancer as the book describes, albeit when he was 37 and not 11.

As main character Ross tells us about the present situation - the treatments and the trials and tribulations of school life and friendships - he intersperses it with flashbacks of the diagnosis, the medical decision-making process and how he shared his news with his family and friends. I'm not sure exactly if the voice that Harrell gives to Ross is realistic, but it certainly is brilliantly hilarious - full of sarcasm, often playing on stereotypical relationships between children and their parents, as well as with their peers at school.

Having said that, pretty much any stereotypes that exist in the story are smashed by the end - the bully, the grumpy old man, the embarassing dad, the scary-looking punk, the popular girl and the stepmum are all allowed to let their true colours shine. In fact, in a book about a boy who is scared about how his public image is affected by his cancer treatment, the focus is more on how he percieves others than one would expect.

The story provides a great case study in how to talk to someone who is going through a tough time. Ross is annoyed in equal measure by the constant questions about how he's doing and the total lack of engagement (as displayed by one of his best friends, Isaac). However, the tightrope is walked perfectly by his other best friend, Abby, who knows him well enough to know when to sit and listen, when to talk and when to challenge Ross for his own selfishness.

Inter-generational friendships abound in 'Wink' too - most notably as Ross gets to know his radiation technician and Jerry, a much older cancer patient who he bumps into every time he's at the clinic. Both storylines are heartwarming, but for different reasons. Frank, the guy who gives Ross his radiation therapy, introduces Ross to music - hard, angry music which speaks right into Ross' life and situation - and eventually becomes Ross' guitar teacher. Jerry, in his gruff old way, provides Ross with the grounding he needs - advice he can take from someone who has been through it.

The whole story ends in riotous, harmonious dischord - a true real life ending. Ross gets to rock out at the school talent contest, showing the real bullies what's what and who's who, sending his best friend Abby off to her new home and gaining a new true friend in the process. It truly is bittersweet.

Recommended for the upper end of the Middle Grade range (so, year 6 to 8 in English money), this is an story is one that needs to be heard. Navigating illness and the potential of death is a tricky topic for children of this age, and one that is dealt with pretty strangely sometimes in popular media. 'Wink' walks the line perfectly and could teach adults and youngsters alike a thing or two about how to come to terms with such difficult issues.

Oh, and there's also really cool comics throughout the book featuring Ross' own character, Batpig!

Wink was published in the UK on 31st March 2020 by Hot Key Press

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