Adam Baron, Boy Underwater

Harper Collins, 2018, ISBN 978-0-00-826701-8

The narrator and chief protagonist of Boy Underwater starts with an admission, though that's not quite how he phrases it: 'Here's something you won't believe', he says. 'I, Cymbeline Igloo, have never been swimming.' The stage is set. We quickly discover that although he is nine, and although he is joint third-best footballer in Year 4, and second-best roller-skater and healthy and normal in every way, he has never set foot in the sea, a river or a lake, let alone a swimming pool. The class is going to have their first ever swimming lesson next week. Cymbeline finds himself telling everyone he is an epic swimmer. As a result he is going to face school bully Billy Lee in a crawl race in front of everyone. He looks up how to swim on the internet, but things don't go to plan. Class genius Veronique saves him from drowning but his humiliation is total: not only is his secret out, but when she brings him to the surface his trunks are no longer on. His mother collects him from the pool. She can't stop crying, and before long she is in hospital and Cymbeline has to stay with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Their house is luxurious but the atmosphere is cold. No one explains anything to him. He makes some unexpected new friends, and with their help sets out to discover why his mother never took him near water.

Boy Underwater explores important themes of mental health, bullying and bereavement. Baron is especially good at writing about adult problems from the viewpoint of a child who is kept from the truth, though a few parts of the book read slightly as though they were written for an older audience. (His previous novels were for adults.) However the story and characters are so gripping that children will undoubtedly keep reading, particularly because of all the very child-friendly humour that runs alongside the poignancy and sadness, and the strong mystery element. The monochrome illustrations by Benji Davies add an evocative extra dimension. Recommended.