Review: Why I Went Back by James Clammer

A beautiful, often staggering, portrayal of a breaking home.

Publication Date: 7th April 2016
Publisher: Andersen Press

Why I Went Back is a fantastic debut, describing fourteen-year-old Aidan’s discovery of an ancient prisoner, as he struggles with his mother’s mental illness and his dad’s depression. In between trying to deliver the mail his postman father has neglected, and attempting to at least show his face at school, Aidan decides to help this stranger. Along the way, he is also able to open up to classmate, Daniel, whom Aidan had previously bullied. Clammer effortlessly shows how nothing is black and white, how tragedy does not have to mean despair, and how problems can always be overcome.

If I could only use one word to describe Clammer’s writing, it would be ‘strong’. The flow is eloquent and the feel of it is rich. Written from Aidan’s perspective, it demonstrates the mental processes of a fourteen-year-old boy as he deals with the collapse of his family life. With uncommon perspicacity, Aidan comprehends his impulses and feelings at the same time as the reader, painting a heartbreaking but powerful picture of a child having to prioritise between rocks and hard places constantly in order to carry on.

Despite containing actual instances of magic, the overwhelming sense is one of magical realism. It’s as if the magical part of the story is a side plot, a fancy, compared to the harsh reality of mental illness, bullying, young carers and neglect. The magic is ineffective against the cruelty of the world, but it is able to inspire Aidan; it can give him the push he needs to be able to deal with what life throws at him. If you are not a fan of fantastical fiction, I would suggest giving this novel a try anyway.

I cannot recommend Why I Went Back enough. I read it in one sitting and could have carried on. It strikes just the right balance, and is a pleasure to read. Anyone who is interested in the power of the human will, and an “invincible heart,” will find this novel really speaks to them. It can also be given to sensitive children of younger ages, well within the middle grade group – not just YA – and will offer them huge insight into the different lives people live behind closed doors. I look forward to Clammer’s next book.