Paul is a loner. He's made an art out of invisibility, knowing exactly what to do, what to say, or where to go in order to remain completely unnoticed by his school's brutal powers that be. This is in stark contrast to his father's life. His dad, a truck driver, attended the same school, and likes to boast of his glory years. Paul's given the impression that these are supposed to be the best days of his life - and, frankly, they suck.
Anthony McGowan's The Knife That Killed Me (2008), however, doesn't let Paul stay invisible. A pair of incidents bring him to the attention of two different factions at his school. He stands up to a bully (in, that, in a fit of rage, he rather ineptly brandishes some scissors at one of the bully's cronies), and he helps one of the 'Freaks' (in, that, in a fit of ill humour, he rather ineptly feigns a seizure to distract an awful teacher). The first incident means that Roth, the school's cruel, bullying overlord, sees Paul in a new light. The second leads Paul to make new friends - especially in Shane, the 'leader' of the Freaks.
Roth and Shane serve as the good and evil of Paul's life. Roth gives him a knife. Shane admonishes him for taking it. Roth sets Paul errands. Shane simply lets him hang around. Paul isn't torn between them as much as he is buffeted: whoever is talking to him at the time, he agrees with - he is delighted to be accepted by anyone. The years out in the cold have taken their toll, and, as a result, Paul is an extremely malleable young man. As Roth and Shane begin to joust with one another more openly, Paul is caught in the middle, and eventually forced to make a choice.
...or is he? Knife's core theme is that terrible things happen because people get caught up in the tide of events. Call it destiny, call it overbearing social pressure, call it a system that feeds on failure... whatever it is, it leads to people like Paul losing any awareness of his agency. This unpleasant lesson rings true: adolescence is a time of frustration and powerlessness; in which the only 'choice' one has is which path to follow. Yet, as a story, it means that Knife is predicated on following a character without agency. Paul never seems to make decisions, and, when he does, they're wholly impulsive. Paul admires, and is drawn to, Shane and Roth because they're confident. They know what they're doing; they have moral (or immoral) compasses. But Paul himself is a weather-vane.
Knife is difficult and thought-provoking because we're not reading a book about a hero, or even, in the conventional sense, a protagonist. We're reading the book about someone who's swept up in the tide of events, a young boy is seemingly unimportant to everyone - even himself. It's the diary of a pawn. In Knife, however, we have an ordinary boy who does not rise to the occasion, who does not achieve incredible things. But, simultaneously, the book keeps us hooked and hoping, as we know the potential is there. It is a powerful, wistful parable; both frustrating and brilliant.
A version of this review first appeared on Pornokitsch (November 2013)