Bad Influence by William Sutcliffe

Please note that this book reaction was written by Emma Garman, of The Fold Drop.

When in 1993 toddler James Bulger was abducted and murdered by two ten-year-old boys in Liverpool the reaction of the British press was mostly straightforward: the killers were monster-children who by dint of afflictions either innate or acquired — it hardly mattered — had become the very personification of evil. In his remarkable new novel, Bad Influence, William Sutcliffe (New Boy, Are You Experienced?, The Love Hexagon) explores the murky dynamic of boyhood friendships to suggest how the sway of peer pressure can lead to behavior horrific beyond such easy comprehension. (Recent world events, of course, have demonstrated that this susceptibility is not confined to males or children.)

Ben is an average ten-year-old from a typical family living in Eighties London. When a chance encounter brings him into contact with thirteen-year-old “nutter” Carl, a new arrival to the area, his life changes for good. Carl assumes control of the lives of Ben and his best friend Olly, introducing elements of danger and brutality to their innocent games and threatening their once exclusive relationship. The story is narrated by Ben after the fact as he addresses a silent individual, presumably a lawyer or social worker, with varying levels of disdain. “But you can’t choose your friends, can you?” they are asked at one point. “Or maybe you don’t know that, because you probably haven’t got any.”

Ben’s voice and internal life are captured with searing authenticity, resulting in an all too rare fictional spell that reactivates for the reader childish emotions — the terror of ostracism, the desperate desire to conform — the intensity of which we tend to repress or forget by adulthood. The effect is sometimes chilling but just as often endearing: who cannot recall such crises as trying to convey to parents the “basic emergency” of needing drainpipe trousers because “people had started talking about baggy trousers like they were an infectious disease”?

Early on, Ben tells his audience of one: “I bet you think you know all about Olly, but you don’t. There’s nothing wrong with him. If I was given the chance again, I’d still want him to be my best friend…” By the time I reached the tragic conclusion of Ben’s story, the meaning behind this simple statement — that moral aberration is not, after all, the sole preserve of the damaged and desperate — resounded, and continues to still. Bad Influence deserves to be at least as acclaimed as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, to which it has been compared; I don’t expect to read a more relevant or accomplished novel for a long time to come.

Details: Bad Influence, by William Sutcliffe, Hamish Hamilton, 162 pp. £7.00