There are three principal players in Carolyn Jess-Cooke’s haunting tale of a ten-year-old boy who claims to be possessed by a 9,000-year-old demon ... but the starring role is unquestionably the author’s home city of Belfast.
In the follow-up to her debut novel, The Guardian Angel’s Journal, a powerful morality tale featuring angels and demons, Jess-Cooke returns to similar territory, a bleak world in which reality and fantasy blur amidst universal questions about life and death.
Here we are challenged to decide if a traumatised child is suffering a serious psychological illness, or can really see demons.
Readers will recognise the soul-searching themes of love, loss and identity used with such force in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, while others will enjoy the contemporary quirkiness captured in Mark Haddon’s groundbreaking novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Where Jess-Cooke’s clever and compelling story differs is in her use of the supernatural as a ‘lens’ through which to explore not just the human condition in general but something much more personal, her own experiences of growing up amidst the violence and angst of Northern Ireland’s Troubles.
Born in 1978, Jess-Cooke spent her childhood in Holywood Arches, an area referred to by one of her own friends as ‘the slums.’ One of her earliest memories was being dragged out of a swimming pool and standing outside the leisure centre wrapped in tin foil during a bomb scare.
Now married and living in Gateshead, Jess-Cooke returns to her homeland and reconnects with her fellow citizens in this literary homage. The impact of her formative years can be heard in the voice of her chief protagonist Alex Broccoli, an only child disturbed by his single mother’s frequent suicide attempts, and now displaying symptoms of a mental illness.
As much a victim as his mother, lonely, mixed-up and neglected Alex’s life is blighted by what is known as ‘secondary impact,’ the psychological effects of a past in which a new generation played no part but which affects them still because of the suffering of older family members.
Alex lives with his mum Cindy in a run-down house in Belfast. In many ways he is an ordinary little boy; he likes onions on toast and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes.
But his mother is severely depressed and has tried to commit suicide four times in the last few years. Mum cries a lot so Alex escapes to his bedroom where he can’t hear her.
Five years ago he made a new best friend. He’s called Ruen and he’s a demon, a Harrower from Hell whose favourite things are Mozart, table tennis and bread and butter pudding.
Alex welcomes his visits because all he ever wanted more than anything in the world was a friend, and demons, says Ruen, ‘are like superheroes.’ They help humans ‘see past the lie,’ the lie that they are ‘something important when they’re really nothing.’
Ruen says he can help, but in return he needs Alex to do something for him. It’s something bad, really bad. He wants Alex to ‘kill someone.’
When Cindy attempts suicide yet again, Alex is taken into care and meets child psychiatrist Anya Molokova who only recently returned to her home town of Belfast and still bears the scars of her own daughter Poppy’s battle with schizophrenia.
Poppy, who used to tell her mother that she felt like she was ‘swallowing darkness,’ took her own life and Anya fears Alex is also suffering from schizophrenia. Her ally is Alex’s social worker Michael James who has become personally involved in the child’s wellbeing.
Anya tries to convince Alex that Ruen doesn’t exist but as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with one critical question – does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons?
The story plays out through the narratives of Alex, Anya and Michael so readers can connect and sympathise with the psychological implications of each character’s point of view (even the demon Ruen) and their relationship with the city.
It’s through their thoughts that we feel the pain, see the links between reality and fantasy, between the past and the present, between Belfast at war and at ‘peace’ and how Alex has absorbed these transitions.
Mental illness, music, literature and politics all have a role in The Boy Who Could See Demons and yet these serious themes are tempered by dark humour and the author’s natural compassion.
A brave, intelligent and thought-provoking novel which may well be one of the year’s best reads.
(Piatkus, paperback, £7.99)