WILLY
Robert Dunbar

Uninvited Books, Paperback, 2011
Review by Shannon Riley

A teenage boy, depressed and suicidal, barely functioning, arrives at a run down school for troubled boys. His previous therapist suggested he keep a journal, and it is through his entries, which he makes obsessively without understanding why, that his story unfolds. At first his entries are fragmented and unfocused, revealing more about the narrator’s state of mind than outside circumstances. Beaten down by life, he has learned to survive by turning inward, and his reflections show his despair. Readers quickly surmise the boy is unwanted, a mere “inconvenience” to a society which has shuffled him from institution to institution. He has come to accept the negative evaluations of others about himself. He may be dangerous – or not, for as his writings reveal, he has been taken from a home he loved and sent here for a supposed wrong doing, but he is unclear as to what his infraction might have been, and the reader never learns if it actually happened or was merely an excuse used to get rid of him. The impression that rings clearly in the reader’s mind is he is an unwanted child society has rejected who has given up on life.

He is assigned a room with a boy named Willy, temporarily absent, whom the adults all seem to fear. Suspense builds as readers wonder what terrible thing Willy has done, what he is capable of doing and how he will react to his new roommate when he returns. Readers learn, through the narrator’s examination of Willy’s possessions, that he appears to have come from an affluent family, and later they find that his family’s money influenced his being sent to the boys’ school (instead of prison?) for a horrible crime he committed.

When Willy returns, however, readers find he is a brilliant, charismatic, friendly young man who quickly takes the narrator under his wing and seems genuinely interested in him. The boy learns the adults fear Willy because he can see though their pretenses and knows their petty secrets, and the other boys do not fear him, they admire him and follow him. Willy calls his group of followers “the coven.”

As the narrator’s relationship with Willy grows closer, readers see a distinct change in the boy’s attitude. He begins to think and articulate more clearly, he takes an interest in some of his subjects, especially poetry and art, and he develops a better self-image. Yet all the while, an element of danger glows beneath the surface. The reader is aware of Willy’s secret activities, never fully revealed, only suggested, and get the impression he is indeed capable of anything.

In this superb psychological thriller, we feel disaster building, like an approaching storm, yet the author keeps the focus on the narrator, and Robert Dunbar excels in presenting the emotional complexities of his protagonist. We see the confidence he gains and the improvement he makes because of Willy’s friendship and fear for his sanity if the relationship should take a destructive turn or end.

Willy is the complex and finely drawn story of a boy’s coming of age and the redeeming – and sometimes damning – power of love. Expertly crafted, terrifyingly beautiful, Willy is an unapologetic look at the callousness of society and an intimate look into the heart and mind of a young man who is changed forever by his experience. It is one of the most powerful novels this reviewer has ever read.

[Editor’s Note: You can learn more about Shannon’s work at her personal website here: Shannon Riley]

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