Winner of the 2014 BNG Bank Literature Prize
Translated from Dutch by Sarah Welling
Kito, a teenage boy has drowned and his mother struggles to come to terms with reality. That, in essence, is the distressing core of The Boy, which probably should not be approached if you’re feeling particularly sensitive. However, if you’re looking for emotional rawness and psychological complexity, then prepare to be engrossed.
For Kito’s mother is a psychiatrist, and, her tragedy is that the walls she builds between herself and her patients remain in place when she is dealing with her son and her husband. Here is a woman who didn’t realise, that despite her good intentions, she would have much more to regret than the death of her son. By the end of her journey through the stages of grief, however, there’s no doubt about it and the question is whether she can accept the truth and survive ….
Adopted from China by his well-meaning Dutch parents, Kito’s fate is that of the outsider. Separated by his skin colour, he is never really accepted by his peers. Other kids play with him only because he has access to the latest video games. His mother recognises this but tolerates it, because seriously what other option is there? Kito seems to take it in his stride. Naturally placid, he’s not for asserting himself. But he does feel it. As he grows into puberty, he turns inwards and away from his parents. How much of this is just puberty or is something more worrying at play?
In the first section of the novel, Kito’s mother reflecting on her son’s childhood is in denial. Her son has not committed suicide, someone has killed him. In the second section, 4 years later, she homes in on the person she holds responsible (based on the stories Kito’s peers have told her). This takes her away from her now non-functioning marriage and to Bulgaria, to Kito’s former drama teacher, Hannah. With murder in her heart, by the end of the part two, it looks as though revenge is just a matter of time.
The third section delivers all the surprises – all of them heart-wrenching. As Hannah tells of Kito’s experiences in the school – the peer-pressure, the bullying and the way in which she tried to help him – the perspective shifts on some of the events related in the first section. At one point, Kito’s mother says:
I have patients who are convinced that the well-being of the world depends on the way they brush their teeth in the morning or arrange their belongings, and as long as they stay vigilant and pay attention at all times, the world order will be safe. It’s our job to convince them that the small choices they make are unimportant, but since Kito disappeared I find myself thinking more and more often that they are right, and everything matters because you never know beforehand what your one crucial mistake will be.
Well, she discovers her mistake alright and the game of consequences she has been playing with Hannah turns right on its head.
This is a brilliant and devastating novel with much to debate. Key to a reader’s response would be the reaction to Kito’s mother – to condemn or otherwise? I can’t. For all her flaws, she is a mother. In fact, we never learn her first name, so that role is her entire identity in these pages. Her love is real. Her grief is real. Her mistakes are real. And that’s the key lesson here – even the most well-meaning mums get it tragically wrong sometimes.