Review published on January 21, 2017.
This Dutch author’s second novel is about motherhood, both sought and lost.
The narrator, a psychiatrist, met her husband Mark at a Christmas market, where he was manning an Amnesty International stall. His essential optimism impressed her: despite his work in the often frustrating field of international development, he had a bright outlook on the world. By contrast, he pegged her – pretty much accurately – as a sad, cold woman in her thirties. Their opposite natures balanced each other well and they set out to have a child, although they suffered from infertility. “These days people assume they’ll be able to control all aspects of their lives, but sometimes there’s simply nothing we can do,” the gynaecologist informs her.
And that’s really what the whole novel is about: the various ways in which parenthood is not within our control. When they fail to have a biological child, the couple adopt a boy from Africa instead, Kito. In some ways, “it was a relief to have a child that didn’t come out of your body and didn’t suckle on your breasts,” the narrator admits. But it isn’t an idyllic adoption experience either. Kito grows distant and, unbeknownst to his parents, is severely bullied at school. One day, on a drama class field trip to the sea to act out parts of King Lear, Kito goes missing. Several days later, his body is found on the beach.
All of the above happens within a taut 50 pages, while the rest of the book is devoted to the aftermath. Four years later, the narrator’s grief is worse if anything: “I staggered and stumbled through the world. When I touched things I felt nothing.” She finds out that Hannah, Kito’s drama teacher, has moved to Bulgaria. Pretending to be interested in Hannah’s self-sufficiency farm, she gets in touch and offers herself as a volunteer, whilst carefully concealing her identity. Once in Bulgaria, she engages Hannah in long conversations full of stories and secrets, eventually eliciting the whole truth about Kito.
The narrator’s role as Hannah’s confessor would seem to be a reprisal of her job as a psychiatrist – except for one peculiar detail. Part III, which contains the heart of Hannah’s revelations, is told in the second person, as if the narrator can’t handle absorbing the story into herself and must displace it onto an uninvolved listener, “you.”
This is a sophisticated novel about parenthood, guilt and responsibilities. It also has a touch of the thriller about it. You’re never quite sure what the narrator will do or how far she’ll take things, especially once she starts transferring her feelings onto “you.” The Boy won the BNG Bank Literature Prize in 2014 and it has been translated into five languages so far. I’m grateful to HopeRoad for making it available to English-language readers.
Rebecca Foster 4/4
The Boy by Wytske Versteeg
HopeRoad Publishing 9781908446503 pbk Nov 2016
Try Not to Breathe by Holly Seddon