There aren’t many books on by to-be-read pile that go back much further than this one, which is a book I cited (but, er, didn’t quite manage to read) for my undergraduate creative writing dissertation, alongside a clutch of unreliable Nabakovian narrators.
It’s got an undeniably great title, it’s written by a man who both a clinical psychiatrist and a professional circus clown, and is apparently widely read in France, and considered a classic on a par with The Catcher In The Rye. It was written in American but largely ignored, and only achieved status when translated into French. The copy in my possession is, apart from being a tiny volume, full of footnotes that are, for some reason, in German. A decidedly odd little book.
The plot concerns itself with Burt, an eight-year-old boy institutionalised after he does something terrible to a girl named Jessica, the details of which are held, as you might expect, until the very last pages. The story is a twin narrative: one half is Burt’s time in the institution, bouncing between two doctors, one respected, authoritarian but ineffectual, the other maverick, empathetic but considered an irrelevance by the medical facility; the second half is his school and family life, and his friendship with the girl Jessica.
The voice of Holden Caulfield is an obvious touchstone for When I Was Five, almost self-consciously so in it’s consuming worldview and the narrator’s opinion of those around him (the word phoney is, distractingly, used on multiple occasions.) The shadow of The Catcher in the Rye looms over it, but there are two books that have followed its publications that might offer a more direct comparison. The ‘child’ voice, a narrator who doesn’t fully understand what’s happening around him, leaving the reader to read between the lines and emphasizing the gap between child and adult understanding, is very reminiscent of Room, although Burt somewhat more precocious, and the examination of a sociopathic and angry nature in the wake of a crime from the point of view of one who has no conception of his own actions or feelings is a direct analogue to Vernon God Little.
It’s a short, quick punch of a novel, that paints an admirably complex character rife with contradictions, secret understandings, and it is utterly impossible to be on anyone side but Burt’s, even when we can see an adult logic to events–in many ways, it succeeds in putting is in the simultaneously narrow but astounding widescreen life of a child better than Room does. The short length means the often fragmentary and deliberately simple prose style doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it’s certainly a masterfully handled exercise in voice. The danger of any book like that is that it becomes something you can admire but not experience, and there is a sheen of that to When I Was Five, but by the time the conclusion rolls around, it’s got some emotional heft right alongside it’s stylistic heavy hitting.
(Side note: I googled some covers of the book. None of them have got it right. I don’t like the cover, but somehow just simple words on a red background do the book better justice than the faux-We Need To Talk About Kevin-esque covers.)