Thank you to Netgalley and Egmont Publishing for sending me an advance copy of Born Scared for review…
So I’ve just finished reading Born Scared by Kevin Brooks and initially it was pretty good, in a kind of surface way. The novel seemed to be channelling Home Alone but also making it into something less goofy and more affecting. Unfortunately, just as the novel casts off this homage it turns into something unwieldy, shoving pointless characters into the narrative with an almost gleeful abandon. Born Scared turns into a bit of a mess. Which is a shame because there was definitely something there at one point.
Born Scared follows Elliot, a boy who has been scared of absolutely everything ever since he was born. People, animals, cars…even colours seem to scare the bejezzuz out of him and nothing seems to help. He lives out his life in his bedroom shielding himself from the world, only interacting with his mum and his imaginary twin sister, Ellamay. Well, she’s not totally imaginary but she is dead. Ellamay (as Elliot names her) died soon after birth while Elliot survived, and he believes she talks to him in an otherworldly way.
Born Scared takes place on Christmas Eve. Elliot has been put on an anti-anxiety pill, which either actually works or works as a placebo (it’s never really stated and it’s never really important to the story). Moloxetine keeps the fear beast at bay, but due to a cock-up at the pharmacy Elliot finds himself dangerously close to running out of pills. Events transpire and Elliot’s mother has to leave him home alone to go and get the pills. But Mum’s been gone way too long and Elliot has to deal with the prospect of leaving his home to go and find her.
You may not be getting too many Home Alone vibes from that summary, because Born Scared has a parallel plot going on, with two seemingly inept criminals in a van both dressed as Santa Claus scoping out a house. It’s really weird, and it’s not initially clear how this affects the main plotline, especially when it starts intentionally confusing the reader (at least I hope it was intentional). Because the house they’re scoping out isn’t Elliot’s, and the woman they’ve been talking about while in the van is not Elliot’s mother…
Which is the main problem with Born Scared. The abundance of characters gets almost comical at times because by the end, I didn’t really know who the story was meant to be about. Of course, the answer is Elliot – and he is the strongest and most interesting character. But it’s also about these guys, Jenner and Dake, in the van. And then it seems to be also about this guy called Gordon. And then an old couple in a car. And then it’s a little bit about this woman called Kaylee. And then it’s about Shirley. And Grace, Elliot’s mum. And who can forget Officer Annie Hobbes?
Yes, all the characters I just named have their own point of view chapters in Born Scared. And I’m probably forgetting some. Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous. Especially by the later stages of the novel where different point of views are used in the same chapter. The story gets so fragmented and confusing, that I found myself having to read things over several times to actually understand who was being talked about. And I think I’m correct by saying that this story is meant to be about Elliot. And it’s just really frustrating when it’s not. Because I don’t care about Gordon, or Officer Annie Hobbes (definitely the most egregious of the bunch) and it doesn’t seem like we’re meant to. The other characters just serve to take time away from Elliot, who is the biggest strength of this novel.
Unfortunately, as Born Scared skips around characters, it also highlights a few fumbles in the writing. Elliot’s chapters are told from a first person viewpoint in the present tense whilst everyone else is told in third person past tense. This isn’t too bad when each character has their own chapter, but when the viewpoints quickly switch in the final third of the novel, the effect is something like tense whiplash. The story is both existing in the present and past simultaneously and it’s just really confusing.
Born Scared surprised me, but not in a good way. The small tale of a boy with his fears is great, and the first 30%ish of the novel is really solid, but it just becomes something of a jumble. I really didn’t know what to make of it by the end. I felt like Brooks wanted to make me feel something about characters he hadn’t even introduced me to. And Elliot’s journey was just totally lost. Which is kinda sad.
Born Scared starts strong, but quickly manages to unravel. The tale of a scared little boy overcoming his illness should have been just that, but an unnecessary amount of minor characters and sub-plots drown it in a flurry of words and tenses. It all adds up to make Born Scared an unbalanced and unfortunate novel which should have been a lot more.
BORN SCARED by KEVIN BROOKS