According to KnifeCrimes.Org, a charity, supported by a.o. the UK Home Office, “A knife incident happens every 25 minutes – 4 in 5 offenders aged between 12 years – 20 years and a third of victims aged between 10 years – 17 years.” With more and more children and teenagers carrying a knife when going to school, Anthony McGowan’s third novel seems to be a sign of the times, a warning as well as a message. Almost completely devoid of all of the humor and wit that was characteristic of Henry Tumour, The Knife that Killed Me, nevertheless feels as poignant.
The central storyline is that of Paul Varderman, who could be your average teenager, trying to stay under the radar at school so as not to be picked upon, bullied… or worse, by the school baddie, Roth. He fails miserably. Paul both hates and admires Roth and gets sucked in by his scare tactics: “Roth was someone I hated, should have hated, more than any other person. Hated because he was a bad kid, cruel and vindictive. The kind of kid who would beat another to a pulp and then piss n his face. The kind of kid who would get his thicko mates to throw chewing gum in my hair to help pass the time in a boring geography lesson. But all he had to do was say those simple words [that Paul was thinking and using his brain] to me, and I was happy.” (p.43) When Paul is given a knife by Roth, the already menacing story takes on an even more urgent tone, urgent in an almost fatalistic way. There are only a few outcomes to this story, but none of them can ever be happy.
What is probably even more remarkable than the portrayal of Paul, Roth or any of the other school kids (what could have been plain stereotypical characterization is actually quite balanced) is the bleak atmosphere that McGowan sketches, a bleakness that not only characterizes certain inner city schools, like the one Paul attends, but also Paul’s entire living circumstances (his home life is not ideal, for instance), and with Paul the living circumstances of an entire generation. This is where The Knife that Killed Me differs completely from Henry Tumour. Henry Tumour had humor – even though it was often of the sarcastic kind – as a redeeming factor in Hector Brundy’s nerdy life, but almost none of that is present in The Knife that Killed Me. Instead you get an almost naturalistic portrayal of the evil that kids can do, what they will do, led by circumstance and opportunity. In this way The Knife that Killed Me is strongly reminiscent of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. The tension is raised high by Paul’s story, and the cat doesn’t feel the knife-interludes throughout the novel were necessary to show the menace of the knife. The power of fear was made abundantly clear already, and in fact, the cat felt detracted by those interludes.
With The Knife that Killed Me Anthony McGowan has managed to show what peer pressure, less than ideal circumstances and adolescence can lead to in its most extreme form. Like the knife itself, he does this with razor-sharp prose, and never sugarcoats. Though the outcome of this story is inevitable as well as tragic and could (should) be read as a warning about knife crime, McGowan does so in a way that never sounds moralizing or patronizing. Spot on.