The protagonist of this debut novel by the Scottish actor and screenwriter Kenny Boyle is Wendy, a recent graduate stuck in a dead end call centre job. But the story starts with her hiding after an art heist, along with a precious stolen painting, in the attic of her grandmother’s house in Glasgow. The tale of how she comes to be catapulted from boredom to daring adventure is also a quirky and honest portrayal of early twenties friendship.
Wendy is an aspiring poet whose life has been marred by familial abandonment and bullying. Her propensity to make up tall tales to explain her circumstances makes her seem much younger than she is, and at first the novel reads as if it might be aimed at the Young Adult market. Her name, and the title of the book, refer to Peter Pan and his resistance to growing up.
Read on, however, and you realise that these fantastical tales of her absent parents being spies or drug dealers are in fact the result of her immaturity and social anxiety, and are an outpouring of creativity in a depressing world. She invents stories for the reader too, describing how she would have liked scenes to pan out, rather than how they actually did – confessing after each: “None of the last chapter was true”, which makes the novel feel disarmingly intimate.
Hers is a small life: while at university, she stayed with her grandmother rather than living in student halls, she has only ever had one sort-of boyfriend, and she confesses she has never really been outside the confines of the city. She doesn't have many friends, and when she loses her job she spends days at a time cooped up in her bedroom. However, she has a vibrant inner world, and there is plenty of humour. She is sacked, for instance, because of her insistence on employing archaic words such as ultracrepidarian or curglaffic in her dealings with customers. Fans of Gail Honeyman’s novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine will recognise how Boyle can garner sympathy for a character who ruefully accepts the drawbacks of her own life.
A new friend, Cat, however, who resigns in solidarity when Wendy is sacked, opens up a whole new life. Cat is actively pursuing her artistic dream, takes drugs, does runners out of restaurants and on a whim drives out of the city to climb trees. While Wendy’s ex-boyfriend can condemn Cat as unstable and a bad influence, the two women’s relationship is a poignantly painted female friendship, which sees them earnestly discussing the crushing horrors of societal expectation in one line, before laughing at the stereotypical socialist warriors who inevitably turn up in first year at university in the next. It makes for a sweet, sad and funny book.
The Tick and the Tock of the Crocodile Clock, by Kenny Boyle, Lightning Books, £9.99