Jean Piaget’s influence in understanding childhood development is almost unparalleled in the 20th century, besides the work of Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky. Amongst other things, he argued that a child’s drawing was reflective of their cognitive development. This, for Piaget did not necessarily mean that it was a distinct stage of development, but rather, an insight into the child’s development. When the child gets to the age of 9, their drawing is based on what they see, as opposed to what they know, so where they know that a cube has six faces, they realise that they do not have to draw all six sides of the cube for it to be a realistic depiction (Intellectual realism and visual realism). So, when Skid Beaumont’s brother Frico has the ability to realise what he puts on paper in real life, what would Piaget make of it?
Roland Watson-Grant’s energetic and deceptively deep novel about Skid Beaumont and his life in a New Orleans swamp is an original approach to failure of an American Dream. Alfrico, Skid’s father, has a drunken vision that on the back of the explosion in construction in New Orleans, that his family should live in the swamp on the promise that the city will come to them, landing a potential windfall for the Beaumont’s. Needless to say this doesn’t happen and they find themselves living in this wasteland next to the world of money and dream making. It is a ‘crack on the map where the construction just stops’ and New Orleans tantalisingly remains on the horizon, always in vision but never fully reachable, Skid observes ‘New O’lins was blazin’ and throbbin’.
The swamp lays a good base for Watson-Grant to develop his story. This basic level of life, almost squalid, contrasts starkly with the America they would have us recognise. There is also an unfortunate level of contemporariness with the New Orleans of today, thanks to the devastating effects of hurricane Katrina. As the city imposes, physically and metaphorically what does it represent? Does it represent salvation, or as Valerie Beaumont, Skid’s mother says “we’re all refugee’s, we’re all running away from something”. Watson-Grant shows quite emphatically that there is another way to life, and just because we’re not living it the way everybody else seems to be, there is a beautiful essence to swamp life,exaggerated by fakeness of the city dwellers. Tourists are described as ‘coming to take pictures of the advertising’ which ironically challenges the artistic strand that permeates through the rest of the novel.
Life’s natural beauty is emphasised by the magical realism employed. It is a device successfully and acutely employed. Skid becomes aware of his brother’s drawings to become reality,
“I saw Frico sketch on paper with his left hand…and he made some strange things happen. It had been a while, but deep down I knew what I saw. That boy was more than artistic. He had somethin’ in his left hand…a strange power to fix things with a pencil”.
It slowly emerges that the Beaumont family does not have a conventional history. If anything the word conventional is mocked incessantly throughout the novel; the family, the house, the heritage, even the novel, nothing is conventional about it. Skid’s grandpa, whom he shares a strong bond with once his father goes absent, reveals gradually to Skid about his family’s past on the island of San Tainos. Watson-Grant doesn’t say too much about this fictional island, but it potentially might be an allegory of Jamaica, “your moms was born In one of the prettiest places on earth, the gods made that place special”. Along with this and some other elusive details about a volcano, which Skid recreates in what appears to be a therapist session there is not too much mention of it. Either way, this was where the Beaumont family were raised and where their magical powers may have derived from. It will be interesting to see if Watson-Grant develops this in later novels, as one instantly thinks of Bogata in Marquez’, 100 Year’s of Solitude, arguably the first commercially successful magical realist writer (if not the best, or Atwood’s Quebec even).
So it comes to the Sketcher, Frico Beaumont. Watson-Grant chooses not to belie this special power in Skid which could be down to several reasons. This allows Skid, the seemingly only ‘normal’ Beaumont to try and manipulate these power to his own ends. The experience of the capitalist world through the city inevitably see’s Skid try and exploit Frico for money. Nothing too sinful mind. Furthermore, seeing this through Skid’s first person account we are given his naivety. Watson-Grant keeps the reader guessing if it is genuine magic, or if it is just Skid’s perception, because Skid has no power in manipulating it. Maybe Skid doesn’t like to accept coincidence and takes Pa Campbell’s stories too seriously like a naïve child. We can be sure that the Beaumont’s have a magical heritage but can never be fully as we taken along in Skid’s ride. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi demonstrated the power of the strength and ambiguity of the child narrator and there are notes of resonance with that fabulist tale.
At an even greater level though, religion permeates the novel, or less dogmatically – belief. Does religion and faith offer a magical realist aspect to our lives? We are obsessed with narrative, everything we do has one, and religion arguably adds a greater plot line to it. Skid rejects coincidence through accepting the drawings and his mother’s conjuring, and while it is acceptable to accept this in a novelistic format we cannot accept it in real life. It works so effectively with the naïve child narrator and the squalor of the swamp and dreams of the city.
Skid who has no apparent magical powers, maybe to emphasise his normality. He beholds the power as the narrator. I must admit I was very sceptical on receiving the review copy from Alma. With the child narrator and Watson-Grant choosing to represent the text in Skid’s ‘New O’lins’ dialect, as you can tell, it works. Watson- Grant’s prose refrains from overloading it with adjectives, but it still provides some moments of poetry.There are some aspects that for me didn’t work though, like when Skid says ‘Freeze Frame’ as if stopping the story to digress, but instead looks like his own failed attempts at magic and maybe it is.Some of the family’s history tries to resurface at the end of the novel in ambiguous forms which were too obviously subtle – definitely happening, but you do not know if they were resurfacings of the Beaumont’s past . The two greatest risks work though – the magical realism and the deep south dialect. The novel will satisfy sceptics of fabulist writing and atheists alike, and we anticipate Watson-Grant’s next move. Even the swamp becomes a cherished aspect, and you begin to hope for it later in the novel.
And so, we return to Piaget and the intellectual muscle flexing at the start. Is Frico drawing what he knows or the more advanced what he sees? If Frico was to be drawing what he sees then Skid is clearly unawares to the potential beauty of life, and who could blame him, when the bubble of your dream pops. Despite Piaget’s theory being too centred on the individual (Vygotsky for me was the far greater advocate of childhood development) Skid’s own account is a great claim for the joy of youth – its ambition, naivety and unrelenting hope for things to get better. And like Martel’s enormously successful book, the power of story telling.
Sketcher by Roland Watson-Grant (pp.279) is published by Alma Books and is out now priced at RRP £12.99
Piaget documented his findings on childhood drawing in The Child’s Conceptions of Space (1956 New York:Macmillan) but there are hundreds of sources on this.