Vincent Gum exists to one person: 6-year-old Benjamin Grey. But he isn’t your standard imaginary friend: Vincent is corporate – Benjamin and he have conversations, and he is always there to protect him, though he sometimes wishes this wasn’t so. Benjamin is constantly making excuses for him: “It was Vincent! You just can’t see him. It’s not my fault he’s invisible.”
This takes the concept behind Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, and applies it to an intense time of need for one small boy. Benjamin needs Vincent to exist as his protector after an explosion in an underground train, so Vincent is suddenly thrust into corporeal existence. In Agnew’s previous book, Conrad Cooper’s Last Stand, Conrad is looking for a God to protect him: Benjamin has one. But yet, he isn’t a God.
Benjamin, and by extension Vincent, arrive at the beginning of the novel at an Orphanage, during a long war. The setting is grim: “Bombed-out shop walls are covered with missing-persons posters and army slogans, spray-painted with rebel tags and Civil Defence warnings. When there’s no TV or internet access, people turn their cities into newspapers.” There are regular air-raid sirens, but the Orphanage is attached to a Hospital, so the two sides know not to bomb their building. But there is a darkness within the building: the Hangar Man, the closet monster is alive and well and living in a cupboard near where Benjamin sleeps.
While there is food and necessities provided, the orphans that Benjamin falls in with are stealing for the black market, to provide themselves with ready cash should they need to move quickly to another place. This activity of stealing (under innocent-sounding names like Hospitals, Bombing Raids, etc) drives the majority of the action in the novel, as well as Vincent’s search for understanding of what, exactly, he is.
Vincent is, by his nature, an unreliable narrator. He is an interesting character to be inside the head of – he has The Knowing, which gives him infallible knowledge about everything, except what is going on in others’ heads. He only understands partway in that if Benjamin stops believing in him, he no longer exists. The Hangar Man persuades him that he needs to make others believe, to ensure his corporeal future.
Here’s the thing: I have read my fair share of war-time fiction, mostly written for Young Adults. The best of them pull you right inside the setting, and make you feel deeply for the characters as they navigate an impossible situation from the point of view of innocence. The Impossible Boy just doesn’t give me enough context, somehow. Perhaps this could be explained by the fact that all that matters to Vincent is Benjamin: and Benjamin is only six, so all that matters is how the war applies to his life. And Agnew is certainly not writing for teens, so perhaps all that was missing was the grit that comes with an older readership.
Though I admit to these misgivings, I still consider Leonie Agnew to be a brilliant writer. She has firm control of her storyline, and the mixture of fear and intrigue that is guaranteed to pull her reader through the darker passages of the novel. I would recommend this for anybody who has needed an imaginary friend, and anybody who seeks to understand the impact that war has on innocent minds.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
The Impossible Boy
by Leonie Agnew
published by Puffin