The Boy at the Door by Alex Dahl

Review published on July 9, 2018.

I don’t know about the characters, but there will be a few readers needing psychological counselling after finishing this novel! The Boy at the Door is a mystery that packs an emotional punch, it’s a psychological drama that chills to the bone. It will be one of the ‘must reads’ of the year. It’s all seems grounded in the real world, ordinary people in extremis, or is there something darker at the heart of the mystery? It’s a tale that plays on the worst fears of a parent, a child in deadly peril. Its clear that nothing is as it seems as the novel opens and that is already strange territory. The story peels back like the layers of an onion before the truth is finally revealed. My mind was racing, reassessing what appeared to be happening and trying to second guess where the story would go; in that sense, it’s a very engaging read. When you add to that the compelling characters, it’s a real page turner.

Cecelia is pissed off with life; Johan, her husband, is away on business in London, the au pair has just left, her two girls are a handful and one of her work clients is getting on her nerves. So far so busy, a working mum’s stressful life. Its October, 2017, the weather is drawing in, it’s Cecelia’s least favourite day, Tuesday, which means she has to collect Nicoline from dance class and Hermine from a swimming lesson, roughly at the same time on opposite sides of town. Cecelia is “in a particularly stressed-out, irritable mood” she tells us and she’d rather be chilling with a glass of white wine right now. Cecelia and Nicoline seem to be waiting an age for Hermine to get dressed after her swimming lesson. When they finally make it to the car park the receptionist calls Cecelia back with a strange request. No one has come to collect eight-year-old Tobias and take him home. His parents aren’t answering the phone but the house is not far off Cecilia’s route home. Reluctantly she agrees to take Tobias with her, she drops her girls at their house and drives to the address Tobias has given. The house is a squat with no visible signs of life, she can’t just leave him there.

Tobias talks Cecilia into taking him home with her for the night. Next morning, she drops him at school and forgets about him until a teacher rings to ask what is going on as Tobias doesn’t go to that school, by now social services and the police are involved. Cecelia and Johan are called to a meeting, they agree to take the boy in until his parents can be found or proper foster care arranged. The hunt begins for the two people they think Tobias has been living with, Anni and Krysz. While Johan wants to do the right thing, Cecelia is desperate for the past to remain hidden and the presence of Tobias threatens that. She doesn’t want to lose her comfortable suburban lifestyle. What happened to Anni and Krysz? Where are Tobias’s real parents? What is it that Tobias can’t talk about and what is Cecelia hiding?

There are three narrative strands to the novel. Cecelia, fragile, full of bravado and desperate to protect the secrets of the past. She is adept at preventing the truth coming out. The question is did she commit murder? Just what will she be capable of to protect her family? Cecelia is an irresistible if not likeable character, she arouses all sorts of emotions, she is capable of behaving appallingly and she is an inveterate liar, but from the reader’s point of view, it’s the other characters she lies to – not us. From us she hides the full truth, but we know she is lying to protect her secret.

Naturally we empathise with the little boy Tobias, the eight year old, a reluctant storyteller. While he reports what he sees around him we are only too aware that he too is keeping dark secrets. His perspective gives us insight into the Wilborg family because they take him in but he’s still an outsider. His innocent take on events is often touching.

However, the key to the story lies with Anni, abused most of her life, she has made the worst choice possible in Krysz, her lover (an addiction), she is also a drug addict. Anni has kept a journal over the years and it will eventually break down the wall of lies Cecelia has erected.

Twists abound in this complex but utterly absorbing psychological drama. It questions our rush to judgement of others without knowing anything about their lives. Its a novel of obsession, and of second chances. There’s a real sense of danger but we don’t which direction it is coming from, within the home, without? The characters, often the architects of their own dilemmas, are in pain, behave badly, but as we learn more about them we can see the way they act in the context of their own suffering. This knowledge doesn’t make us want to excuse them but it does help to explain them. Underneath the extreme circumstances you have the analysis of a dysfunctional modern family and it’s issues, post-partum depression, stressed motherhood, absent fatherhood, boredom, sibling rivalry and lack of communication. Only you can’t ignore the extreme circumstances, they are in your face!

The clever way in which apparently discordant strands of the story come together is very satisfying. A breath-taking read, a superb first novel that would be ideal for reading group discussion too.

Paul Burke 5/5

The Boy at the Door by Alex Dahl
Head of Zeus 9781786699237 hbk Jul 2018

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