January 2019 – The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles
blog by Cindy Bushey
Zion’s readers had the intriguingly named novel The Boy at the Keyhole as their January selection. It was billed as a psychological thriller and was the Australian author’s first attempt at adult literature as he previously had written two different children’s series: Silas and the Winterbottoms and Anyone But Ivy Pocket. These were published under the pseudonym Caleb Krisp. It is always interesting to see how an author straddles or jumps the age gap in different audiences, so our readers eagerly set forth.
However, we have to say that we did not find his first attempt appealing to OUR adults! Somehow, the young boy Samuel, whose widowed mother supposedly left early 20th century England for America to raise capital to keep the failing family business going and sent sporadic post cards to the boy, only engendered disbelief among our members. As Samuel discovers some of his mother’s letters to his father, it seemed apparent that she had often gone away and perhaps suffered from heavy post-partum blues or simply felt smothered by Samuel’s clinging to her. We really wanted to find him a sympathetic character and empathize with a child’s love and need for even an uncaring mother. Instead, he seemed creepy and obsessive. His willingness to assume a conspiracy by his caretaker, Ruth, to kill his mother required more leaps of credulity than we cared to make. Even granting a nine-year old’s imagination combined with a friend capable of equal flights into the macabre, it just didn’t ring true. And the author took care to pound it into the readers over and over again, making our comments of redundant, repetitive, unbelievable, and ridiculous color our view of the rest of the book.
Although it was a fairly fast read, Ruth didn’t gain our sympathy either. His mother’s former maid, she admitted having no strong maternal feelings and being uncomfortable around children, a strange person to leave in charge of a child. So why did she constantly need to know exactly where Samuel was in the large house? Perhaps this incessant vigilance contributed to his personality traits, including his ability to believe evil of her. While Samuel’s uncle, his friend Joseph, the servant Olive (who had to be let go as money was running out), and the gardener Will appeared from time to time in the book, they were obviously used to emphasize a plot point. The entire book was basically the interaction between Samuel and Ruth – he becoming more obsessive about his mother’s failure to return, and Ruth vacillating between doing her best to feed, clothe, and educate Samuel and concealing something about his mother. The limited scenery and limited character list all contributed to the claustrophobic feel of the book.
When Samuel finally got around to looking through the keyhole on the old-fashioned lock in his mother’s room, he caught Ruth at her desk. That was the only time in the entire book he looked through the keyhole (which made the title appear a bit overdone), and he did discover a page that was missing from a letter he had previously found. In his mind, this sealed Ruth’s duplicitous nature, and he looked for a way to interest the authorities in her behavior. Yet, for some reason, he never approached a teacher about his beliefs. With the current atmosphere of always encouraging children to let an adult know if they are being mistreated (Ruth sometimes appeared a bit bi-polar and would strike Samuel for his accusations), that added to our disbelief. Watching Ruth control Samuel by intimating that adults like the local doctor would think he was mentally ill for thinking such treacherous thoughts about her was unsettling, yet another thing that added to the creepiness factor of this book. The plot moved ponderously to the denouement where Samuel confronts Ruth, who loses control, Samuel stabs her with convenient scissors and flees towards the door, which opens to reveal his mother returning and he runs toward her. . . and then what? The next thing we know, Ruth and Samuel are being questioned by the police weeks later as to why his mother’s trunks had been delivered to the house but no one has seen his mother. While Ruth speaks privately with the detective, Samuel wonders if he will again be left alone. Readers are left to wonder exactly how the plot resolved, and we came up with a couple of unsatisfying possibilities. Overall, we felt it was an unfinalized, creepy novel just on this side of psychological horror, and with the question of just whom the author intended as his target audience – teens or adults? Teens was probably the better answer. Our voting reflected that with 6 neutral votes, a knuckle down, three 1-thumb down votes, and one 2-thumbs down vote. Next month, we will visit our 101st book since the club began – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.