Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend
Author: Matthew Dicks
Narrator: Matthew Brown
Published 2012 by Macmillan Audio
11 hours – Unabridged

“Just because we’re imaginary, doesn’t mean we’re not real.” Throughout Matthew Dicks’ wonderfully inventive novel, Budo struggles with the dichotomy at the heart of this statement. Budo is an imaginary friend, created by Max, an eight-year-old boy somewhere on the autism spectrum. Budo’s been around for five years at the time of the story, which makes him a lot longer-lived than most imaginary friends. In fact, an enormous number of imaginary friends are killed by kindergarten, where daily routines and access to a large number of potential human friends combine to do away with the imagining child’s need for his or her made-up friend. For, you see, in Dicks’ world of people and their imaginary friends, the imaginary ones begin to fade and finally disappear altogether when their creators stop needing them and stop believing in them.

Max has continued to need Budo because he has no other friends, and in fact does his best to stay away from other people, aside from a select few including his parents and his beloved teacher Mrs. Gosk. Max goes to school each day and, with Budo’s help, navigates its confusing and sometimes terrifying landscape with a minimum of disasters. Until the day of a certain gross-but-funny encounter in the boys’ bathroom with fifth-grade bully Tommy Swindon, and then things begin to change for Max and Budo. Tommy is a typical bully, familiar to anyone who’s ever been an outsider at school, and no different from countless bullies in literature through the ages. But while Max and Budo are worrying about Tommy Swindon and how he might retaliate for what went down in the bathroom, an unexpected threat sneaks up on them. For there’s somebody else at school who poses a greater danger to Max than Tommy Swindon does, and no one suspects a thing.

When Max disappears from school one day, Budo is the only one who knows what has happened to him. And not only can Budo not be heard or seen by anyone in the real world other than Max, he has no power to physically move or otherwise act upon objects in the real world. Luckily, Max has imagined him with the ability to pass through closed doors, so Budo can move freely about. He’s smart and resourceful, too — which we learn is not always the case with imaginary friends. We meet some of the other imaginary friends that Budo knows, and they give him what help they can, according to their various abilities. But finally Budo has to face facts: the only one who can help him rescue Max is Oswald: a very unusual and very scary imaginary friend who hangs out over at the grownups’ hospital.

What happens next is thrilling and suspenseful, an exhilaratingly fun and nail-biting ride for the listener that culminates in a climactic resolution scene reminiscent of the great A Prayer for Owen Meany. It packs an emotional wallop, all right, as does the denouement. Matthew Dicks (whose works are published under the name “Matthew Green” in the UK) has done a beautiful job of fleshing out the world of imaginary friends and depicting the roles they play in the lives of the people who created them. Narrator Matthew Brown (so many Matthews!) skillfully breathes life into Budo, who knows and understands more about the world than Max does, but still regards everything with a naivete that reflects the fact that he is a child’s creation. Dicks’ writing and Brown’s voice combine to capture this perfectly.

I was only a few tracks into this story when I started thinking more and more about my own childhood imaginary friend: a strongly detailed character who has lived on in memory because I dictated his adventures to my sister, and together we created an illustrated book about him that I have in my possession to this day. My old made-up friend has been so much on my mind while I’ve been listening to Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend that I even googled him. (You will perhaps be relieved to learn that I found no trace of him.) I have often thought that I’d like to read a novel about what becomes of imaginary friends after their people don’t need them anymore. Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend does not fulfill this wish, and in fact the author’s vision of what happens to superannuated imaginary friends is somewhat different from what I’ve always pictured. Nevertheless, this is a terrific story, loaded with laughter, tears, and insight. I can also recommend highly Matthew Dicks’ previous novel, Unexpectedly, Milo, and plan to read his first novel, Something Missing, soon.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher as part of the Solid Gold Reviewer program administered by Audiobook Jukebox. No payment was received in return for a review. The receipt of the book had no influence on the opinions expressed in my review.