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Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is, in a word, brilliant. It's one of my favourite books of the year and that's saying something because I have read a truly insane number of books this year. I'm sure there are lots of you out there who have read far more than I have, but I've gone from an average of 1-2 books a week in 2011 to about 3-4 a week so far in 2012, so for me that's a lot. And this one stands out as phenomenal.
The premise is simple but powerful. The novel is told entirely from the first person perspective of Budo, the imaginary friend of an Autistic boy named Max. Well, he's not labelled as Autistic, but the author makes it clear. In Budo's world, imaginary friends are very real and can interact with each other, even if the only humans who can see them are the children who first imagined them. And once that child stops believing in his or her imaginary friend, the friend disappears. Since Max spends so much time inside his own head, his imaginary friend has survived longer than most. Budo is nearly six years old and in that time he has learned a lot about the world and the dangers it presents, both for Max and for him. Budo is worried about disappearing, worried about what will happen if Max stops believing in him. But more than that, he's worried about Max. Max sometimes forgets to look for cars before crossing the street. Max is being bullied by a mean kid at school. And, most worrisome of all, Max has been befriended by a teacher whom Budo does not trust. At all.
There are a few ways an author can go with subject matter like imaginary friends and other childhood fantasies, and usually the result is either humourous (like the movie Drop Dead Fred) or straight up horror (like most of Stephen King's earlier work, including It). The hardest path, I would imagine, is to write literary fiction that maintains the conceit of the imaginary friend but remains steadfastly realistic in all other aspects of storytelling. Once the author has committed to the one fantastical element, he or she must work within the confines of the world they've created, be as 'realistic' as possible and hold the reader's attention without shrugging and saying, "Just kidding! There are no imaginary creatures! It's all a big joke." They must treat their fantastical characters like real characters who have real limitations and real codes of behaviour. No one wants to read about the imaginary creature who can fly AND can live forever AND can travel through time AND has unlimited strength AND has x-ray vision AND never sleeps AND can tell the future AND has new powers to accommodate every conceivable situation so the author never has to make any choices or solve any problems for their made-up creation.
I really like the choices that Matthew Dicks made with Budo. He has limitations which are different from other imaginary friends because each child imagines differently. Some kids imagine that their friend can walk through closed doors (like Max did with Budo) while others don't (which results in a lot of imaginary friends getting left behind places). Most imaginary friends don't look like real people. They have bright pink skin or they have no feet or they look like puppy dogs. Budo looks exactly like a real boy because Max imagines him that way, which makes other imaginary friends cautious around Budo (in a way, this is parallel to the way children are cautious around Max). The highest concentration of imaginary friends is in the children's hospital because not all kids bring their imaginary friends to school but they all bring them to the hospital with them.
Yes, the imaginary friend is a device the author uses to tell us a story about a boy with Autism who is in real danger of being victimized by a bully and in even more danger of being victimized by a teacher he's supposed to be able to trust. That story is compelling, horrifying, emotional and memorable. But it's also a story about imaginary friends, at least in the world Matthew Dicks created for them. Once he created Budo and his world, he committed to it. He made Budo real. So much so that--and don't tell anyone this--I actually cried for him at the end. (I won't tell you what happens at the end but some of it is sad...oh, now I'm crying again just thinking about it.)
Oh, and on a side note, if you're looking for this book in the UK, you'll have to look for it under the name "Matthew Green" instead of "Matthew Dicks." The author's real last name is Dicks, but apparently his British publisher asked him to change it for publication in the UK. It seems the British book industry didn't trust you Brits to be able to contain your giggles. I heard Courtney Cox is known as Courtney Smith-Brown over there.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley.com. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.