‘The Boy that Never Was’ is a novel exploring the madness which can befall a parent due to grief following the death of a child and the huge consequences that decisions and actions can have no matter how small they seem at the time.
It is well-plotted and paced intelligently so that important facts are revealed slowly over the course of the book. It is both a thriller and a claustrophobic study of a personal family drama and one character’s descent into madness.
I admired the writing style and the clever story-telling and I liked the device of narrating chapters from alternating point of views. I was intrigued by the fact that the book was written by two authors and wondered whether Karen wrote Robin’s chapters and Paul wrote Harry’s.
However, while I appreciated the writing I would say that, due to the unlikeable characters and the unsettling themes of grief, guilt and loss, this is a difficult book to enjoy. I was particularly frustrated by the character of Harry who throughout the book, even before the earthquake, makes such terrible decisions and deals with situations so badly. I found it hard to feel sympathy for such a flawed character. In spite of Robin’s thoughts at the conclusion of the book, I could not help but feel that everybody would have been a lot better off if Harry had not made his discovery.
I guessed Robin’s secret early on as I doubted anyone would be so willing to forgive a husband whose neglect had led to the death of her child unless she was also harbouring some terrible guilt. However, I think there was enough misdirection that the reader was led away from the final revelation of the whole truth, particularly after Robin fails to see any significance in meeting Garrick’s family while Christmas shopping. I think it would have been a braver choice on behalf of the authors and a more believable storyline if the book had stopped before the final twist at Garrick’s house.
‘The Boy that Never Was’ is an interesting thought-provoking novel which is very readable, it is well-written and carefully structured to create a tense thriller. The characters’ motivations are clear and it is easy to understand how they are moved to make such shocking decisions and take actions with such disturbing consequences. However, I found Harry’s actions exasperating and the ultimate conclusion of the book unsatisfying. I think the selfishness of the adults in convincing themselves that their horrifying actions were in some way in the best interest of their children meant that at the conclusion of the novel everyone is so damaged that it is hard to feel hopeful for their futures and I do prefer books to end with a sense of hope and possibility.