Many moons ago, I stumbled upon an indie film on Sky Movies starring Andrew Garfield. The film was Boy A and I had no idea as to the fact it was adapted from an original novel by Jonathan Trigell, nor that it was loosely based on one of the most shocking headlines in British history. I enjoyed the film and its powerful performances by an understated cast, yet never really had the chance to talk about it with anyone, as it seemed to be one of those titles that nobody had heard of.
Last year, I popped into an Oxfam in Bradford City Centre and found the Boy A novel on a dusty shelf. Despite the fact I’d already seen the film (I prefer to read books first and then watch their filmic counterparts), I decided to give it a read. Generally, I’ve accepted that those days of climbing into bed and ploughing through at least one book per night are over: the habit died around the time high school became more pressing and adult responsibilities started to fill my time. However, I ended up reading Boy A in two sittings over the duration of a day, which is the first time in a very long time that I’ve encountered something so un-put-down-able in my adult years.
The main appeal of the novel is the authentic, speculative glimpse into the life of a freed convict. Trigell’s narrative eerily echoes the James Bulger case of the late 90s, though Trigell maintains that the Bulger case was not his sole inspiration during the development of Boy A. It’s hard to un-see the similarities from the outset- within Boy A, a young girl is murdered by two troublesome schoolboys, from a relatively impoverished area, playing truant from school. Additionally, the title of the novel itself and the identities of ‘Boy A’ and ‘Boy B’ strike some similarities in that Bulger’s case also required courts to identify the perpetrators by similar terms during case proceedings. The use of aliases was an attempt to anonymise the under-aged murderers, whose families were as much the target of public vitriol as the boys themselves.
Bulger’s case is one that continues to haunt the British public because of its significance as the first instance in which two unassuming children did the unspeakable, for no apparent cause. There have been many documentaries and texts, fixated on the argument as to whether the children were innately evil or whether there was some retrospective evidence of a motive, some justification for their abhorrent behaviour. This makes Trigell’s Boy A all the more interesting, as we are invited (as readers) to imagine the ordeal from the eyes of the perpetrator. The novel is Trigell’s account of a young man trying desperately to take his second chance at life, whilst coming to terms with the unstoppable consequences of his past actions.
At the beginning of the story, ‘Boy A’ is released and granted a new identity, given the opportunity to work and reintegrate within society (under the supervision and guidance of his support worker, endearingly called Uncle Terry). Boy A becomes Jack Burridge, a self-aware young man who knows his blood is notoriously wanted by the general public. ‘The Incident’ isn’t massively discussed from the outset, but vaguely alluded to throughout the narrative as Jack Burridge has to find a way to navigate his new life without drawing any inconspicuous attention to himself. The depiction of his adjustment to life outside of prison is stirring, particularly due to his sincere remorse and his childish inexperience. We are reminded that this criminal has lived in relative isolation. He has grown up in the artificial and loveless environment of a juvenile detention centre. He has never worked before. Never had a girlfriend. Jack Burridge is almost a blank slate with limited social skills and experience, aware that one slip-up could cost him everything.
The narrative progresses linearly yet odd chapters jump back to the past, filling in the gaps of Jack’s childhood, the events directly preceding ‘The Incident’ and the experience of growing up behind bars. There’s an innocence about Jack Burridge, a quality that makes you almost support him in his quest for redemption and acceptance. Yet simultaneously, there’s an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of your stomach, an awareness that this young man is the very same who once was decreed ‘evil’.
Jack Burridge knows that what he did all those years ago was wrong and that even all these years later, tabloids continue to fuel the witch hunt by keeping his story alive and printing photos of what he might look like in the present-day. They killed an angel on earth and no amount of atonement will ever gain them forgiveness. There’s a lynch mob mentality out there, a sheer repulsion towards the idea of Boy A and Boy B even being sentenced to live after committing such an atrocious crime. Even within juvenile detention centres and prison, law enforcement struggle to contain their disgust and persecute the boys. The boys are forever tainted by that day, the day of ‘The Incident’. The day that changed their lives irrevocably. The day that two young boys snatched a life, in the murky darkness under a bridge and, in the process, lost their lives too.
Even though I was just a child at the time, I have distinct memories of footage wherein grown adults hurled abuse and profanities at the vans containing Boy A and Boy B, as they approached the courts for sentencing. The crowds were riotous. There were death threats, calls for capital punishment and a general lack of remorse for the children. The age of the perpetrators granted no sympathy from anybody- at the time, it was a matter of seeking justice for the innocent victim. Trigell, however, weaves his beautiful prose from the other perspective and focuses on what it was like to be sat inside the vans.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Boy A is its ability to problematise and distort the black-and-white perception of a child murderer- we find ourselves sympathising, in part, for a broken young man who is depersonalised by the general public and pining for a place to belong.
Boy A was a truly engrossing novel, written with flair yet hard-hitting and unafraid to paint an ugly picture of an ugly event. Somehow, Trigell gets the balance right in that he doesn’t condemn his protagonist, nor does he advocate his actions. Instead, Trigell shows us the broken reality of a broken society and gives us a very complicated depiction of the figures we’ve condemned as villains.