Every so often, a proof drops into your grubby mitts, & after just a cursory glance over the blurb, you just know you’re going to get along with it famously. So, when critically acclaimed author Tim Lott’s latest offering for 9-12’s mentioned an awkward youngster & a healthy dollop of theoretical physics, I couldn’t resist for a second!
How to be Invisible tells the story of young Strato Nyman, a 13 year old boy whose passions in life include particle physics, space & reading Fantasy novels. Having been recently uprooted by his parents from a school for gifted children, in the heart of London, the novel finds him unceremoniously plopped into the countryside setting of Hedgecombe-upon-Dray, where he is not only the only black kid in the whole village, but also he is being forced to attend a normal school where his pastimes of choice don’t earn you many friends. Strato struggles to understand why local bully Lloyd Archibald Turnbull has decided to make his life such a misery, he can’t fathom what his Physics teachers, Dr. Ojebande might have against him, & the cold distance between his parents is confusing & upsetting. So, when a mysterious hidden away bookshop grants Strato the ability to turn invisible, he knows he has the chance to understand the hidden lives around him. But with invisibility comes knowledge, & some knowledge is harder to digest than Quantum Entanglement or even Black Holes, & Strato soon finds that knowing the truth doesn’t make it easier to deal with.
So yes, I had no choice but to read this book, as an amateur physics nut myself from quite a young age. Strato is a brilliantly complex young character, & a superb protagonist, as his curiosity & naturally scientific minded nature make his actions feel natural, & this in turn drives the story in a steady way. His desire to be treated like a grown up, & his insights into the hidden adult world he uncovers are painful & poignant, especially when he grows to understand how much adults are willing to lie to his face. His character development is beautiful to watch, & has a real coming-of-age feel to it. Tim Lott also has a great amount of skill in illustrating the nuances in certain character’s behaviour, & how Strato’s interactions with them change as his understanding develops, particularly with his investigations into the home life of bully Lloyd Archibald Turnbull. His parents are also wonderfully flawed human beings, & their personal struggles, seen through the changing eyes of their invisible son, feel equal parts normal & heartbreaking all at once.
The book explores many complex themes in a way that is perfect for children of that age bracket to understand & come to grips with. The predicament between Strato’s parents, understanding bullying & first crushes are all touched upon with sensitivity & power, but it’s the passages dealing with racism that I found superbly written. There’s no implication that racism is a common occurrence, but even the character in question is shown to have a softer, caring side, which is really the main thing to take away from How to be Invisible: No-one is exactly how you see them, & everyone has different pieces to their personality – some good, some bad. No-one is perfect. I did the love the inclusion of some genuinely astounding & fascinating scientific facts, which for me personally, helped me really connect with the story & broke up the events well (as well as being educational!). I even remember being blown away by the Double Slit experiment myself when I was about 12 or 13 myself. Lott’s writing doesn’t just tackle to bigger issues of life & love, but also injects the story with a healthy dose of geeky humour, while still managing to avoid the physical comedy clichés that so often drag stories of invisibility down. Oh, & the bookshop discovery scene was wonderfully Gothic, it really conjured up memories of M.R. James short stories. Finally, I’ll admit that the book’s ending did throw me off a little bit, drawing in some more fantastical elements, but once I had settled into it, it really made sense with some of the other aspects of the book.
All in all, How to be Invisible is a great book for shy youngsters, Geeky types & those with a sense of humour & adventure. I’d strongly recommend it!