A deeply moving story about hidden homelessness that is lightened with laugh-out-loud moments, subtle humour and a distinctive narrative voice.
Felix Fredrik Knutsson is almost thirteen and has spent the last few months living, and often freezing, in a Westfalia van with his mom, Astrid. It was supposed to be temporary – a summer adventure when their landlord kicked them out and Astrid ran out of friends they could stay with. However, as summer gives way to autumn and autumn to winter, Felix realises that Astrid is unlikely to ever hold down a job long enough to earn the deposit and payslip they need to rent a proper apartment. All hope of a home with any privacy and luxuries such as heating and a bathroom seem hopeless until Felix successfully applies to take part in the junior version of the game show Who, What, Where, When.
Told in a first-person voice, we meet Felix as he sits in a police interview room at 12.05am. We’re immediately intrigued by the situation he finds himself in and by Felix’s distinctive voice, particularly his use of his P.O.Os (Powers Of Observation) in relation to Constable Lee who is questioning him. Felix’s combination of vulnerability and intelligence are instantly appealing and I couldn’t help marvelling how author, Susin Nielsen, has created another totally unique character. I also love the way she has again placed a “nerd” in this central position.
While Felix is well-rounded and easy to equate with, the strongest character in the book is probably his mom, Astrid. Through Felix’s narrative we slowly build up a picture of Astrid and this image is far from positive. Yet, despite all her flaws, we are able to understand and, to some extent, sympathise with Astrid. Thus we can cheer Felix on when their circumstances cause him to snap at his mom whilst also feeling for Astrid.
A character-driven story, much of the plot revolves around the challenges Felix faces trying to cope living in the van, attending school, and keeping their living arrangements secret from his friends. This provides plenty of opportunity for humour and I laughed out loud a number of times. However, given the subject matter, this is also tinged with sadness. Indeed, numerous incidents in the second half brought tears to my eyes and the climax, when Felix publically reveals their plight, found me fighting back torrents of tears (not ideal in a busy airport!)
Homelessness, parenting, immigration, friendship, shame and guilt – this book raises so many issues it’s an almost perfect discussion text. Indeed, a number of suggested discussion questions are included at the back of the book. However, while this is a book that will make you think, it’s also a cracking good read that will make you laugh and cry.
Date: October 2018
Publisher: Andersen Press
Author’s website: Susin Nielsen