A Good and Happy Child

good and happyThe Short Version:  George Davies cannot hold his newborn son.  After his wife gives him an ultimatum, he begins to see a psychiatrist who asks him to explore his childhood memories.  But those memories open up a story he’d almost forgotten: his own father’s untimely death, an imaginary friend, and a murder most foul.  But is it just that George was an understandably disturbed kid – or was he possessed by something far darker than a human mind can create?

The Review: The mind is a scary place.  When we hear strange noises that wake us in the middle of the night, when we twist innocuous shapes into monsters in the darkness, when we don’t understand something, when emotions run too high – all of these things can cause fear.  What happens, though, when we fear?  For the most part, our adrenaline spikes and maybe we scream or we stay firm, who knows – but we end up getting through it with a story to tell and that’s about it.  But what if your fear affected your brain more nefariously, like any other neurological condition (depression, anxiety, even socio and psychopathy)?

That’s the great trick of Justin Evans’ first novel.  His second, The White Devil, was a gripping-if-predictable British boarding school ghost story – and this is a slightly less gripping if slightly less predictable exorcism story.  And I think I’ll take that trade-off.  There are still some great frights in this book, including an exorcism scene that is right out of the William Blatty playbook and a really terrific denouement, but Evans doesn’t go all the way with the scares and that seems to be because of the slightly unpredictable plot he’s attempting.  That unpredictability stems from a (good) authorial unwillingness to pin down just what’s happening to young George Davies.

Not to say that lots of people don’t try.  We get a series of short interludes set in the present (more on these in a moment) where grown-up George is talking to a psychiatrist, who exists in the second person (i.e. addressed as “you”, meaning the reader, a nice but all-flash-no-substance trick) and back in the past, there are all kinds of doctors, friends, priests, and other concerned adults who want to understand what’s happening to their young charge. And by the end of the book, the question has not been definitively resolved; it remains unclear whether George was possessed or if he was just a regular troubled youth.
Evans’ gift, really, is in pulling this off despite the fact that he himself stacks the deck for demonic possession.  The reader spends enough time in George’s head that we’re inclined to believe his side of the story: blacking out and waking up in strange places, his mysterious ‘Friend’ who tells him to do things, objects clearly under the power of some other force… but then Evans continues to carefully sew a smidge of doubt – just enough! – as the novel progresses, culminating in an ending that almost pushes the reader back completely in the opposite direction.

And actually, it was this that bothered me most.  I’m all for ambiguity in my reading – I don’t need to know what Area X is, I don’t need to know what Harry Potter is doing as a grownup, I don’t need the book to be wrapped up in a little bow.  But the framing device (the aforementioned present-day psychiatry sessions) set up the reader for something that we don’t get and that is even the barest amount of understanding about George’s present problem.  Put another way, if you removed all of those scenes, you’d still have a gripping novel about a kid who might’ve been possessed… but when you include these modern scenes, while it helps up the uncertainty quotient, you lose some of the propulsion of the novel.  I didn’t care about George’s son or why he found he couldn’t even touch him, except in the context of the potentially demonic interference he dealt with earlier in life.  The final moments of the book are meant to be, what, touching?  Instead, they’re just a shrug and that’s a letdown after a pretty terrific end to the childhood traumas.

Rating: 3 out of 5.  Much as a bad ending can ruin a good book, it wasn’t enough to make me write this whole experience off entirely.  The dialogue that Evans creates between psychiatry and religion is quite interesting and I almost wish he’d gone further into exploring that strange cosmology (it fits with a generally Christian worldview but also incorporates older things and that intrigues me greatly) – but regardless, along the way, he puts characters in somewhat predictable scrapes that still spook the reader.  George’s problems are, for this reader’s money, very real and very much not his.  And watching the grownups around him argue over whether or not his mind should be his own, while he’s fighting that very same struggle against something inexplicable, is a kind of horror in and of itself.

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