Grand Central Publishing, 2014
originally published as L'enfant aux cailloux, 2011
translated by Nora Mahony
paperback - my copy from the publisher via LibraryThing, thanks!
"The touch of madness was irresistible."
Early on in this book there came a point where I thought I'd had it all figured out, and so smug little me decided that now that I knew everything I'd just sail along with the rest of the story until it proved me right. But I was wrong. Totally beyond wrong. And that's a good thing.
The Stone Boy begins with a series of vignettes moving the story along between 1946 and 1997, introducing us to the story's main character Elsa Préau, starting in her childhood where sitting at dinner one day, out of nowhere she passes along a message from her dead mother to the rest of the family. In the 46-year interim, as she marries, has a son, divorces, gets a job as a teacher and then moves up to being a headmistress. All along, Elsa's idiosyncracies seem to grow stronger, culminating in a strange afternoon picnic with her little grandson Bastien. Flashforward to the present, and Elsa, now in her 70s, is moving back into the family home, very much changed from the last time she was there. Now much of the neighborhood is under construction, and in her absence, much of the land around her home has been sold off. Her physician son, Martin, comes every so often to see her to make sure she's okay; otherwise her only company is her housekeeper, and Elsa has a lot of time on her hands. One Sunday afternoon, she is awakened from her nap by the sound of a swing squeaking and the sounds of children at play. Watching out her window, she notices a little girl and two boys outside playing in their back yard. Watching the Desmoulins children becomes a pastime for Elsa, and she notices the same thing every week: the little girl playing with her younger brother, while the older boy sits still and quietly, "constructing totems with bundled twigs and flat stones" under a weeping birch tree. The more she watches, the more she notices that the older boy has very little interaction with the rest of the family:
"It no doubt stemmed from a solitary temperament and a tendency to be withdrawn on his part. Yet his unwillingness to speak to the point of submission was unique. He never held a toy in his hands; he was content with twigs and stones. And though Madame Préau did pass the younger brother and sister from time to time on the path as they were coming home from the bakery with their father, one on a bike, the other on a scooter, not once had the old woman seen the little boy behind them. And that was troubling."After a while, she begins to try to get the boy's attention by playing piano pieces designed for children, leaving the windows open so the music can be heard over the wall. She starts keeping a record of what she sees, along with other observations, in a small moleskin notebook, writing about the dirty condition of the older boy's clothing, his grayish skin, that he only went outside on Sundays, and that he never played with the other two. She's drawn to him not only out of curiosity, but because he has an incredible resemblance to her grandson. In her notebook, she begins to refer to him as "the stone boy."
I am of two minds about this book. First, I thought it was very well written, especially because the author has constructed a story that plays quite nicely on reader expectations and then proceeds to turn them all on their respective heads. Ms. Loubière also weaves some powerful contemporary issues into the story through Elsa's letters to the mayor and other officials as well as in her notebooks and in the last few pages where all is revealed. I have to admit to being so wrapped up in this story that everything else just sort of fell by the wayside and I accomplished absolutely nothing at all during my day. But after finishing it, I realized that this book could have had a much better ending. So now comes the serious "spoiler ahead" alert - and I mean, if you read this without having already read The Stone Boy it will totally kill it for you, because I don't hold back. So think seriously before you click to highlight the rest of this paragraph. For me, the book would have had the ultimate spine-tingling, bone-chilling effect on the reader if the story had ended right at the anonymous phone call from Auverre. Think about it. All of this time we're so convinced that Elsa's just crazy and can't separate her dead grandson from her obsession with the boy next door, and everyone has proven to her that there is no third child there. Then the stuff at the Desmoulins home happens, and Elsa dies and as far as the police are concerned, case closed. Then you have this little girl calling Child Line (in chapter sixty) about her father making her older brother go into the basement, then hanging up, an ending that would have been a lot more powerful than the unraveling of things that followed. Perfect, finito, the end. In this case, I have to say, less could have been more.
A book that had me as wrapped up in it as this one did can't help but be good, and I'd definitely recommend it. It's an amazing character study much more than it is a thriller, and the way the writer plays with our heads is simply topnotch, ultimately delivering a one-two punch that will hit you in the gut.