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by Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Delacorte, August 2013
299 pages
ISBN: 0345536533

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

There's a recent trend in psychological thrillers (or perhaps I've only just become aware of it) that depends on an unreliable narrator or two to produce a startling revelation in the final pages. Sometimes, as I thought it did in GONE GIRL, it works very well indeed; sometimes, as in THE OTHER TYPIST, not so much. But occasionally, it has the perverse effect of sabotaging the entire novel up to the reveal and this is what happens in THE BOY WHO COULD SEE DEMONS.

We are in Belfast at the present moment and Dr Anya Molokova has returned to that city from Edinburgh to take up a post at the McNeice House, a treatment centre for adolescents with serious psychological problems. She is assigned to Alex, who is only ten, whose mother has a history of failed suicide attempts, and who insists that he can see demons. He not only can see them, but he can draw them, especially Ruen, who has several guises, some benign, some less so. He has been variously but not successfully diagnosed.

Dr Anya invests herself heavily in this case for a terrible reason. She is the mother of a twelve-year-old daughter, Poppy, who was a victim of early onset schizophrenia and who died four years ago. Predictably, Anya bears a fearsome burden of guilt and is committed to ensuring that Alex gets the treatment he needs.

Alex is a wonderful creation. We get to know him intimately, better indeed than his shrink or his social worker, because he keeps a journal and we get to read it. He is brave, fearful, possibly delusional, intellectually gifted, but burdened, as he tells us, with a big nose and sticky-out ears. He schoolmates make fun of him sometimes. He also appears to have a talent for the stage and is cast as Horatio in a children's production of Hamlet. He has been told that his father, of whom he has warm but fragmentary memories, is dead, but no one cares to talk about him very much. In his more benevolent guise, Ruen serves as a kind of not-altogether-effectual father figure.

We follow the course of his treatment under Anya's supervision, willing him to recover, or at least to find some equilibrium, some respite from his various demons. His condition, indeed, the condition of a number of the children, appears to have something to do with The Troubles, even though most of them are too young to have been directly affected by the violence. Several Northern Irish authors have used the notion of haunting as a metaphor for the lingering effects of the strife on the Irish population - Stuart Neville and Adrian McKinty come immediately to mind - so it comes as no surprise that Jess-Cooke, who was born in Belfast, might turn in this direction.

Meanwhile, Anya continues to be haunted by memories of her daughter and by whatever responsibility she might bear for her untimely death. As we might anticipate, it all comes to a climax and spins out of control on the opening night of the children's production of Hamlet.

And then the wheels come off. What has been a taut, suspenseful story of a struggle between analyst and patient and analyst and herself takes a sharp turn into another territory altogether. Reviewer's ethics forbid me from saying where it goes, but it is not someplace I was happy to head, considering the amount of emotional energy I had invested in the characters to that point. I am not at all sure that the author wanted to go there either, as the style noticeably changes from a fluid, engaging, at times almost poetic prose to leaden exposition. It is almost as though one of Alex's demons had sneaked into Jess-Cooke's study and commandeered her keyboard in a fit of pique.

So in the end, THE BOY WHO COULD SEE DEMONS disappoints. Whether it was a commercial consideration or a failure of nerve that accounts for the flatness of the resolution is impossible to determine but is certainly something to regret.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2013

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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