‘He has never seen anything accurately.’
Willem J. Gyle is a labourer in Edinburgh. He’s big, fit and strong, but his thought processes are slow because of oxygen deprivation during birth. His life has its patterns and routines, and Willem is comfortable. Willem lives in a flat with his Mam and his little dog Jap.
But then Willem is laid off. The building trade is hit by a recession, and the site where Willem works is locked and abandoned. Willem turns up for a few days: he can’t find his Mam, and isn’t sure what to do. He’s worried, too, that the lock will rust if no-one oils it. Willem and Jap are together, though, so part of his routine remains the same. Sadly, fate isn’t finished with Willem.
His Mam dies, and he ends up homeless. Jap is taken from him. What will Willem do?
The balance of the novel (over four parts) takes us through Willem’s increasingly bleak future. Without an address, he can’t get benefits, or medical assistance. With his savings spent (and stolen from him) he resorts to begging and theft. He sleeps where he can.
‘A few people look at him, they see his face and his clothes. He is unwashed, unclean.’
Gradually, Willem realizes that no-one will help him. His life is full of indignities, he’s tried to follow the rules as he understood them but somehow, he’s become invisible. He needs to find and take what he needs for himself. Sometimes, other people get hurt.
Willem leaves Edinburgh, and heads for the Highlands. And, for a brief period, I allow myself to hope that he’ll find a safe place. That somehow, he’ll be able to escape his past and frame a new future. Willem is a keen observer of nature, fascinated by the changing seasons and the activity of birds. But the past won’t allow him to escape, and he’s judged for what he’s done. There’s no chance, and probably no words to explain why.
The ending is inevitable. The only uncertainty is the where and when. One of the strengths of this story is how it requires the reader to think about how we treat those who are disadvantaged and homeless, how we expect them to observe rules which suit us without being flexible in trying to meet their needs. How far can a person be pushed before they transcend the usual accepted limits? Is Willem’s behaviour understandable? Is it possible to read this story without feeling some sympathy for Willem and some empathy for the situation he finds himself in?
Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Thistle Publishing for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.