Make sure you have a large box of tissues to hand before you start reading Not Thomas by Sara Gethin. It’s an emotional wringer of a novel, portraying a world that is harsh yet contains beacons of goodness. It’s disturbing, shocking and provoking, yet tender in its treatment of people who fall through the cracks of society.
Sara Gethin’s novel is written from the point of a view of five-year-old Tomas (his non Welsh-speaking social workers mistakenly call him Thomas) who lives alone with his young mother and her boyfriend. This not a world of happy families however.
His mother “Becks” is a drug addict, her boyfriend “Brick” is a runner for local drug dealers. Home is a mess of discarded beer cans and cigarette packets; the food cupboards are empty; there’s no heating and the power works only some times when Becks can afford to feed the meter.
Neither of them pay any attention to the boy. They don’t clean his clothes, change his bedclothes or bother to feed him; packets of crisps representing the only nutrition he gets outside of school lunches some days. When the adults go out on the town, Tomas is left locked in; huddling on his rickety bed under layers of towels and sweaters and reading old train magazines by the light of streetlamps.
I’m looking for Mammy again now. I’m looking for Brick’s car. I’m looking for Mammy and Brick. I’m waiting for them to come home. i’m waiting and waiting. And I am peeping through the window. I’m waiting and waiting for Mammy to come home. And waiting and waiting. And waiting and waiting.
Tomos loves his mother but he longs to back with Nanno and Dat in the place he thinks of as home. But he’s no longer allowed to see them and no matter how much he shouts for Dat to come and get him, he never arrives. In his head Tomos composes letters to these two people telling them about the “nasty men who came and they hurt Mammy and Brick” and how much he misses Nanno’s “yum yum yummy dinners.”
The only good thing in his life is his young form teacher. Few of his classmates want to play with him because he smells but Miss looks out for him, feeding him sandwiches, finding a warm coat from lost property and washing his school uniform. But when the holidays come around, Tomas is back in his bed, trying to make himself “tiny tiny tiny” under the bedclothes while men smash the door and trash the house. Tomas’ story gets under your skin, particularly as the tension escalates during Christmas and then, more dramatically, the Easter school holiday.
It’s not an easy task to write in the voice of a five year old and from a perspective that is naturally constrained by lack of exposure to the world. Sara Gethin makes Tomas believable most of the time by using simple phrasing and repetition. Tomas has a natural intelligence, quick to pick up on information he overhears though he doesn’t always understand what he experiences. But there were a number of times when I wasn’t convinced a boy so young would be able to navigate the tenses as confidently as Tomas seems able to do:
I am banging and banging on the door. ‘Please,’ I’m shouting. ‘Please, have you seen my mammy? She’s been gone a very long time and I don’t know where she is. Did you see her when you were out in the van? Can you tell her to come home?
If you can turn a blind eye to those occasional slips, then Not Thomas is an immersive tale of child neglect and how this can take place in full sight yet be invisible. It’s a tough read because your heart goes out to this slip of a boy who is so trusting of other people but learns that his faith is not always reciprocated.
Not Thomas by Sara Gethin: Footnotes
Sara Gethin is the pen-name of Wendy White, an author of children’s books. A native of Wales, she has worked as a childminder, an assistant in a children’s library and as a primary school teacher. Her first book, Welsh Cakes and Custard, won the Tir nan-Og Award in 2014.
Not Thomas was published by Honno, the Welsh women’s independent press, in 2017. It was shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize award in the same year.