A gripping novel about parenthood and loss, bullying and revenge
Boy grows up as the only child of his adoptive parents. Chubby and dark-skinned, he is ruthlessly bullied at school, but at home he says nothing about what he is going through, only that he has pains in his stomach. After a class outing to the beach, he does not return. His lifeless body is later discovered washed up on the sand.
‘A major new talent.’ That was how NRC Handelsblad described Wytske Versteeg on the evidence of her debut novel. In Boy, her second book and winner of the BNG Literatuurprijs, the young writer confirms her status as a bold and highly individual voice. Her protagonist, Boy’s mother, is not immediately overcome by grief in the aftermath of her son’s death but is determined to find out exactly what happened. How did Boy die? Was he murdered? Did he take his own life? The police believe his death was suicide but his mother is not so sure.
Every little detail of the story seems to crowd in on the mother. She mulls over every aspect of how her son’s body was discovered by someone out walking their dog on the beach. She homes in on the ‘deep-purple smock of a dress’ worn by the policewoman who comes to break the news and the ‘jarring tone’ of her voice. Tuning into details seems to offer her a way of drowning out the naked truth of what has happened.
Her efforts to unravel the course of events lead her to an unsettling confrontation with the class bully and expose her to a torrent of abuse from a girl from the same class. Eventually she sets her sights on the drama teacher, who was preparing her pupils for a performance of Richard III at the time of Boy’s death. This somehow appears to have triggered the fateful events at the beach, but no one is able or willing to fill in the details.
Hannah, the drama teacher, has left the teaching profession and moved to a remote village in Bulgaria. Boy’s mother follows her there; she poses as a voluntary worker who can help with the gardening but her true purpose is revenge. Yet as soon as she arrives at her destination, her resolve crumbles. Although Hannah leaves her stranded for hours, she cannot feel angry. In the end there is no violence, just the dark and harrowing story of a woman who sought to steer the group dynamics of her class and instead precipitated a tragedy.