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Booker Prize 2023: How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

In the fictional town of Emory, Eoin takes a walk with his 13 year old son Jamie who can’t stop talking for a second, filled with excitement as he is. Excitement and nervousness. He is about to start secondary school and knows it is not going to be easy. An avid and exclusive reader of Edgar Allen Poe, a devoted fan of Fields medallist Maryam Mirzakhani and a powerful obsession, Jamie does not easily fit in with the other kids. He knows exactly how many steps it is going to take to get him to the dreaded Christ’s College. He also dreams of getting closer to his dead mother by building a perpetual motion machine. Noelle, just a teenager herself at the time, died in childbirth, leaving Eoin behind to raise his neurodivergent son. A task he has dutifully carried out, spurred on by the deepest love for his enchanting child and supported by his caring mother.

Soon and rather accidentally, Jamie starts collating a group of unlikely friends, all connected by a missing parent. Fatherless Terry is the only boy in class who doesn’t bully Jamie and he sticks around patiently, even if Jamie pushes him away. Tess, his teacher, grew up without a mother and watched her father succumb to alcoholism. Now she struggles with seemingly endless rounds of fertility treatments in an attempt to save her crumbling marriage. Tadgh is the school’s new woodwork teacher. He left the small island off the Irish behind to escape the memories of the dark secrets around his own absent father. This band of lonely souls unties against headmaster Father Faulks and starts to build a Currach, a traditional Irish boat, in an attempt to get as close to Jamie’s perpetual motion machine as possible within the limits of physics and along the way we get to know them and their secret hopes and fears.

How to Build a Boat is a tender novel about love, loss and grief and the courage it can take to stay true to yourself. Through changing points of view, we get to know the characters individually and watch them help each other grow. Feeney is a poet and her prose shows that. It is fluent and lyrical, meandering but never saccharine. Though well composed, I did think she could not quite carry her strengths all the way through, losing some of her drive in the mid-sections. Part of the issue here might have been that as we dive deeper into the individual storylines – personally, I was especially moved by Tess’s story – their narratives drift apart and you find yourself wondering, if only briefly, if they should not have been told separately. Toward the end, they find back together, but there are a few chapters through which they distract from rather than add to each other. I enjoyed when Feeney went deeper into Jamie’s perspective, using a first person narration and an almost stream-of-consciousness style to express his busy mind. Some of the things she made him think about did, however, feel somewhat out of place to, almost imposed on the young boy. One example is his growing obsession with Jordan Peterson and his theories on masculinity, that don’t make sense at all, when viewed in context of his other thoughts and values.

Overall, How to Build a Boat is an inventive and quiet read, certainly enjoyable and empathetic though perhaps not entirely new.

Published by Harvill Secker, 2023

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