256pp., pbk., RRP $A14.99
Cymbeline Igloo is nine years old, is the third-best footballer in Year 4 (joint), second best at roller-skating. Even though he has only one parent while his friends have two or even four, he is fit, healthy and totally normal in every way. Yet, despite living in Lewisham in south-east London he has never been swimming. His mum has never taken him near a pool, a lake, a river, the seaside – always brushing away his request with seemingly plausible excuses.
So when his teacher says that the class will be starting swimming lessons the following Monday, Cymbeline is somewhat daunted. He doesn’t even own a pair of swimmers! But encouraged by his best friend Lance (named after the disgraced cyclist) and goaded by the class bully Billy, he agrees to a race against Billy in the pool. Naturally, things end very badly for Cymbeline, not the least of which is losing the swimmers he found in his dad’s things in the attic, but it is the response of his mother who is called to the pool that is the most startling of all.
As a result of this incident, she ends up in a psychiatric hospital taking Cymbeline’s beloved soft toy Mr Fluffy with her. And Cymbeline is forced to stay with his rich Aunt Millie and Uncle Chris , to whom he is a burden, and cousins Juniper and Clayton who make it clear they want nothing to do with him. Totally alone, his mother hospitalised and not well enough to see him, and no cuddly toy to take to bed to comfort him, Cymbeline is bewildered and scared but determined to find out what is wrong with his mum to have had such an extreme reaction. Surely the world seeing his willy isn’t enough to provoke such a response. And why has she taken Mr Fluffy? Befriended by super-smart Veronique and even Billy, who has his own issues at home, Cymbeline is determined to get to the bottom of things. And when he does, it becomes clear that adults really should paint the whole picture when they tell a child something big, not just the bits they think the child can handle. Sometimes honesty can prevent a lot of heartache – the child isn’t left to fill the gaps with their own, often wild, imagination.
Written in the first-person in a voice that really echoes that of a 9-year-old boy, this is a story that will engage the independent reader with a storyline that has some meat to it and is totally credible. Even though it deals with some heavy-duty issues, this is done with a light hand, humour and empathy, providing an insight into the lives of some of the children in our care that we might not always see. Families falling apart for whatever reason is a common story, sadly, and it’s not always the teacher, in this case Mrs Phillips, who is the confidante. Many children, like Cymbeline, are carrying unseen burdens.
For me, a quality novel is one that engages me to the end and I can hear myself either reading it aloud to students or book-talking it. Boy Underwater is indeed, one of those.