I was sent this book for review by Hot Key Books, after I eagerly jumped at the offer. I love any books that subvert gender ideas by getting girls to play football or boys to do…well, knitting.
Ben Fletcher is one of those boys you wouldn’t notice. He ambles along through life, with his three useless and borderline criminal pals, whom he doesn’t really like much but they’re his mates, so he’s used to them. His parents (who are an absolute SCREAM) are always making hugely embarrassing double entendre comments to each other (e.g ‘There’s no fizz coming out of the nozzle,’ Mum shouted through to Dad. ‘That’s not what you said last night,’ Dad called back.) and a younger sister who, frankly, is hardly mentioned at all, such is her lack of impact on Ben’s ordinary life.
Ben is just one of those boys who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. After stealing a bottle of Martini Rosso sort-of by accident (don’t ask, it makes perfect sense in the book), he is assaulted by a lollipop lady for ignoring the pedestrian crossing and ends up on probation (again, a perfectly logical series of events in the book, though I thought it most unfair that the lollipop lady got off scot free). He is forced to take an evening class in order to Reform, and because he fancies the young teacher taking Knitting, he signs up for that. (The other options were even less appealing.) Only it’s not her taking the class, it’s the mother of the girl he fancies most at school, Megan Hooper.
To Ben’s astonishment, he turns out to have a natural talent for knitting, and soon he is completely obsessed, hiding Knit! magazine under his bed and pretending he’s doing Pottery to appease his conservative father. He also has to Give Something Back to Society by doing menial tasks for the lollipop lady, which starts off very badly indeed but gradually moves into a very heartwarming scenario.
This is a very unusual book. In terms of plot, there isn’t a lot. It’s written in diary form, which again is unusual for a book with a male protagonist, and there’s a lot about knitting and trying to stay out of trouble, mixed in with some fantastic domestic scenes. I wasn’t sure I was very ‘into it’ to begin with, and was surprised how slowly I was reading.
But what I realised half way through the book is that this is a masterclass in characterisation – which again is something you don’t often find in a book about a boy, written by a man. Ben is a beautifully-drawn character. His parents are hysterically funny (I LOVE that his mum is a touring magician and his dad is a mechanic who cannot fix the toilet and refuses to call a plumber) and his friends are realistically useless and teenager-like. Even the women (Ben naturally fancies several at once) are carefully drawn and well-rounded. And the lollipop lady, Mrs Frensham, is a perfect ‘old lady’ (‘How old do you think I am?’ she demands of Ben. ‘Eighty?’ he hazards. She deflates like a balloon. ‘I’m sixty-one’), battered and bruised on the inside but aggressive and grouchy on the outside. Knitting brings everyone together, in a charming story about doing what you’re good at and to hell with everyone else.
As an aside, I’ve only read one other book that works in quite this way, and that’s The Cardturner by Louis Sachar, in which a teenage boy discovers a love of bridge and becomes obsessed with it. But whereas Sachar’s story is very heavily bridge-detailed (almost to the expense of the plot), Boys Don’t Knit (in Public) is far more accessible and laugh-out-loud funny. (I’m not just saying that; I actually did laugh out loud several times.)
A fascinating out-of-the-ordinary read which should appeal to thoughtful boys and girls alike.