Stephen Giles’ The Boy at the Keyhole

What's the difference between a young adult novel and a novel for adults? The sophistication of the language? Subject matter? Age of the protagonist? All of these dissimilarities can be shot down with examples. The Wind in the Willows has language as rich as a Nabokov novel. Clockwork Orange has a young protagonist, and today's YA fiction is often about formerly taboo subjects. I ask this question because Australian writer Stephen Giles is the author of a series of young adult novels and, according to his publisher, this is his first novel for adults. While reading it, I kept wondering how it was unlike young adult fiction.

I was perplexed, so I did what any inquisitive man would do faced with such a vexing poser. I asked on Facebook. And most people said this: A young protagonist is the main difference. Yes, the titular protagonist of The Boy at the Keyhole is obviously a young person, and the entire story is about him wrestling with the absence of his mother and whether or not his keeper, Ruth, is evil or good. One person also mentioned a simpler structure, fewer subplots. This succinctly addresses what I was asking. And still another answer that is germane: one person said "marketing."

click to enlarge book_boyat.jpg

By any standard that I can bring to bear, this is still a young adult novel, regardless of what the publisher says. I don't mean this in any way pejoratively. But it makes a difference in how one reads the book and, for my purposes, how one considers it for review. Comparisons on the cover to Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson seem inapt.

The story is pretty straightforward and is practically a two-person play. Young Samuel Clay is left in the care of prickly stickler, Ruth, housekeeper and babysitter, who has let the rest of the staff go. Samuel's father is dead, and his mother is in America trying to find a way to make her fortune (what she's doing is rather vague). She sends Samuel postcards with brief notes, which do nothing to convince Samuel that she will be home soon. After some irresponsible taunting from his best friend, Joseph, Samuel begins to suspect that Ruth has done something terrible, perhaps even killed his mother so she could take over the house and the care of the recalcitrant only son. Samuel tells Joseph, "She's a dragon, that one." Joseph asks him if he's checked the cellar.

As Samuel piles up his "proof," he begins an emotional tug-of-war with Ruth. This battle of wills makes up the meat of the plot. There are tense, late-night creepings by both characters. Samuel thinks the postcards are forged. He also thinks Ruth might be trying to do away with him. In a piece of chocolate cake Ruth makes for him, Samuel chokes on a piece of broken glass. Ruth convinces him he does not need a doctor. As the boy's investigations lead to more damning proof, the reader is left with two options: Either Ruth really is a murderous, duplicitous fiend, or Samuel is deluded in a childish and naïve way. The narrative is predominantly concerned with Samuel — he's in every scene — so one is tempted to side with the lonesome lad and to believe his half-baked case against the overly authoritarian Ruth.

"You tried to kill me," he says. "You wanted me to choke on that glass."

Ruth answers: "It's been a trying night, and I think we're both ready for bed."

Giles writes: "Samuel thought of his mother, murdered at Ruth's hand, and he wanted the hate to glisten in his eyes."

One can imagine this as a film, and it would make an especially fine thriller in the right hands, say a modern Hitchcock. The ending is certainly Hitchcockian — I'm pretty sure you won't see it coming — and is a marvelous reward for the subtle, measured unfolding of the tale. The Boy at the Keyhole is a fast read, and I predict it will be a popular book, the kind of thing book clubs gobble up. It should also please fans of young adult thriller writers like John Bellairs, Ransom Riggs, Lois Duncan, and Enid Blyton.



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