“Every year, when I was a kid, my Dad put on a play for my birthday. He did it to help me cope with my annual heart check-up, and also the fear and uncertainty that I felt pretty much every day. He called them the Days of Wonder, because he said wonder beat everything.”
The challenge of following up a successful debut novel can be a daunting one for any author. Much like the dreaded second album, authors must combat a tide of expectation and prove that their first literary offering wasn’t just a fluke.
But how easy is it to capture lightning in a bottle, twice?
For Somerset-based novelist Keith Stuart, the task was perhaps even more intimidating, after selling more than 200,000 copies of the highly personal, and poignant, A Boy Made of Blocks, the heart-warming tale of father-and-son bonding set against a backdrop of autism and Minecraft.
So, as Stuart gets set to release his highly-anticipated follow-up, Days of Wonder, in June, has he managed to live up to expectations?
The answer, I’m pleased to report, is one big, resounding YES.
Sticking closely to the formula that won his debut plaudits and critical acclaim, Days of Wonder once again revolves around a parent-child relationship, only this time it is the dynamic between a father and his daughter that takes centre stage.
Days of Wonder alternates between the perspectives of two protagonists – single father Tom, manager of the Willow Tree Theatre, and teenage daughter Hannah, who suffers from a life-threatening heart condition. This difficult fact is made clear to readers early on, and is a central arc that runs throughout the moving story.
The alternating voices of the two characters add a strong sense of pace to the book (while I generally loathe the phrase ‘unputdownable’, it certainly applied to my experience when reading), oftentimes with both providing their conflicting perspectives on life events that transpire.
Two central themes run throughout the story. The first is Hannah’s navigation of her teenage years; a confusing and painful time for many of us to recollect, but made all the more so for Hannah as she struggles to come to terms with her condition and the perceived futility of making decisions about the future. The second is Tom battling against the local council over the impending closure of his beloved theatre – a place filled with colourful characters that has provided sanctuary and purpose since his wife Elizabeth abandoned him – and their daughter - walking out on motherhood in favour of career and self-fulfillment.
Weaving through these two narratives is the central theme of love – both Tom and Hannah’s deep-rooted and clearly-evident feelings for one another, but also the pair’s messy attempts to tackle the dating scene.
Described by the author himself as “a story about love, life and magic”, once again Stuart channels his personal feelings into a heart-warming work of fiction, being “greatly affected by the death of midfield player Marc-Vivien Foe from a rare form of cardiomyopathy … I wondered how you would live your life as a teenager with such a serious heart condition. What would it take to get you through?”
Stuart’s latest offering is also a tale of stories, memories, and the lens through which we view our lives. And it’s highly moving.
I read the entire book in three days – which, being a Dad to a very energetic and inquisitive four-year-old, is not something that I can say very often these days. But it’s a true testament to the author’s skill; Keith Stuart is fast emerging as one of the UK’s great emotive writers when it comes to finding the beauty in everyday life.
Uplifting and life-affirming, Days of Wonder is destined to be one of this summer’s most popular holiday reads.