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Review: When I was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten

When I was Five I Killed Myself is a classic in France – the introduction mentions a figure of 1 in 10 people in France having read it.  Elsewhere, it is sorely neglected.  If I hadn’t read this:

I would have remained in ignorance.

The premise sounded intriguing – eight year old Burt has been sent to an institution for young offenders, where a psychiatrist attempts to get to the bottom of his crime.   Also the book looked small, and to my pressed-for-time, buzzing-with-too-many-blogging-ideas brain, this was very appealing.

After Lionel Shriver’s Prepositions, this is clearly the week for difficult reads.  Burt’s narrative alternates descriptions of his early memories (from the age of five) with descriptions of what is happening to him in the present: psychiatrists, the strange behaviour of the other children around him, and the methods of control used on the children.  As time goes on, the gap between present and past narrows, until we find out what really happened to Burt for him to end up in this place.

The first half of the book was particularly difficult for me to get into.  What happens to the children in the institution, and the suffering of the children when separated from their parents, was quite disturbing.  Added to this, although Burt is off and on engaging in his observations and voice, he has a detached, disjointed voice which makes it difficult to empathise with him.

The classic diagnosis one would make of such a child is something on the autistic spectrum.  Burt is rigidly guided by what he perceives as good and bad; he lashes out at other children when annoyed; he describes others’ actions without any thought as to their motives.

The double mystery stringing the reader along, one might think, is: what crime did Burt commit, and what disorder contributed to him doing so?

But it’s not as simple as that.  One of the psychiatrists, to the disapproval of the establishment, begins to express doubt as to why Burt is at the institution.  In his opinion, there is nothing wrong with him.

The book became really interesting at this point.  One of the things the book really brought back to me was the feeling of being five, or six, or seven, or eight and even beyond, and the actions of other people making no sense.  Children are born with no sense at all of what others feel.  It is something they learn.  Some children “get” this by observation at the appropriate milestone ages.  However, I do feel that this is something that children are largely taught – mainly because I was never taught these kinds of things, and struggled with them well into adulthood, never mind childhood, until I moved into an area of work where I managed to catch up on the things I had missed out on.

To me, it was ambiguous whether Burt’s “flat” voice was that of an autistic child, or that of a child merely slightly behind in certain parts of his development.  Either way, I thought this was a remarkable portrayal of the way the spectrum works, of the faded areas at the edges of it.

It was also interesting seeing the contrast in professional stances across the ages.  The book was originally published in 1981, so the psychiatrist depicted as the “old school” was very much old school.  It was frightening how randomly we fare in the hands of medical experts, when the schools of thought are changing all the time, and are in such thrall to internal political and personal pressures.

This book is amongst the best I have ever read from a “child’s eye in adult fiction” point of view.  The kaleidoscopic vision of confusion was everywhere, yet the story was still simply and cohesively told.  Also there were some really funny “child’s-eye” moments, such as when the Burt innocently remembers engaging Santa Claus in theological debate, not realising the impact on the children and parents around him, a story which could have come straight from one of Lovely Daughter #2’s “Adventures of a Wimpy Kid” books.

It gets pretty tense towards the ending too, which I never expected from the way the beginning dragged out.

This was a well structured, complete and memorable read.  And it will get you emotionally at the end too, autism or no autism.



  1. This is definitely going on my reading list, Denise – thanks for the head’s up.
    Have you read ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue? It’s written in a child’s voice – you might like it – and it’s quite an easy read. I found it compelling and finished it in one day (when I didn’t have much else on!)

    • Hmmm… I saw Lovely Daughter’s friend reading Room recently and it would be interesting to be able to pass it on to her as something that could grab her attention. I didn’t have quite the same success when I tried to recommend When I was Five… last night even though that was originally a YA book.

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