If you’re looking for a bit of escapism in the wake of the worrying upheavals in the big wide world over the past few months, best look elsewhere. Billed as a psychological thriller, Wytske Versteeg’s novel is an unsettling study of what can happen to vulnerable children even when adults have the best intentions for their care. It’s a short novel but it took me quite some time to read it.
Kito’s parents adopted him when he was a baby, taking him home to Holland from the country where his biological mother died in childbirth. His father works in development aid and his mother is a psychiatrist, not entirely comfortable in her role as a parent but determined to give her partner the child she is unable to bear herself. Kito is a quiet boy – a little too sensitive – an outsider observing other children but not confident enough to join in their play. His parents try to make things easier for him, never quite getting it right. Despite her training, his mother is appalled when she finds her son admiring himself in one of her dresses. As Kito grows older whatever tenuous friendships he has formed fall away. One night, after a beach party arranged by his drama teacher, he goes missing. Four years later, consumed with grief, his mother sets about finding out who is responsible. When she hears that Kito’s teacher has taken herself off to Bulgaria, she finds a way to work as a volunteer on Hannah’s smallholding and after months of patient observation extracts the story of what happened that night on the beach.
Versteeg’s novel is narrated through the voice of Kito’s unnamed mother giving it an immediacy which is both effective and discomfiting. The narrator’s unease with her role as a mother and her painful awareness of infertility is vividly contrasted with her open-hearted partner: ‘he started a relationship with me, as if he’d found a half-withered pot plant on the street and taken it home with him’; ‘deep within me was something dark and resentful and black, which was too powerful for Mark’s poor sperm’. The bullying suffered by Kito is quietly revealed, never heavy-handed, while Hannah’s ineptitude, naiveté and inability to exert authority over her rebellious class are sharply drawn. It’s a book about outsiders – the narrator, Kito, Hannah, the Westerners who settle themselves in Bulgaria’s countryside ‘off grid’ – all feel themselves to be outside society in one way or another and some pay the price. This is a deeply disturbing book, not a conventional crime novel with a cut and dried resolution, but a commentary on how we treat people different from the rest of us all wrapped up in a gripping, wrenching piece of storytelling.