Thursday, December 24, 2009

Book Review: Deborah Schupack, The Boy On The Bus

Author: Deborah Schupack
Publisher/Year: Simon and Schuster, 2003

The Boy On The Bus is a short book that lingers long past its pages have been digested. It is a deceptively simple story, relying more on psychological progressions and transgressions than any physical or tangible plot elements. The novel presents one idea and alternately shines a bright light and encases it in shadows as the narrative progresses to its fuzzy and somewhat uncomfortable conclusion.

The story starts with Vermont housewife Meg being beckoned to the school bus parked in front of her house to retrieve her eight-year old son Charlie. There is one slight problem with this task: she does not believe the boy to be Charlie. Something does not seem right with the boy who seems to look and talk and act like Charlie. Meg senses something amiss but fear stops her from immediately questioning the boy who may or may not be her son.

Once Charlie is off the bus, Meg begins the inevitable mental process of comparing the Charlie she knows to the Charlie that she sees before her. The Charlie that left the house that morning was asthmatic with a sickly pallor and a fear of life. The Charlie that returns is healthy, hungry, adventurous and emotionally stronger. Unsure if she can trust her observations and intuitions, Meg summons both Jeff, her common law husband, and Katie, her rebellious thirteen-year old daughter, home to get their opinions on this baffling Twilight Zone-esque mystery.

Both Jeff and Katie, as well as the local sheriff, Charlie’s pediatrician and neighbors join in on the ‘mystery’. But their involvement is teritiary at best and is wholly summed up by Jeff: “You’re his mother. You know best.” Yet the more Meg observes Charlie, the more she becomes unhinged and detached from the reality surrounding her. Her attempts at questioning and testing Charlie only yield more questions instead of the answers she so desperately needs. No definitive answers emerge over the course of her observations, making Meg more tense and anxious with each passing minute.

Meg is not the most likable female character you will ever come across. She is actually most unlikable, even to people who are not mothers. She passive-aggressively pushes people away when they obviously do not want her to control them. Charlie, with his illness, is the only one who cannot escape and she pours all her energies into making him dependent on her. But it is really Meg who is dependent on Charlie, which is partly why this new Charlie shakes her to her very core.

Charlie’s blurred identity mirrors Meg’s own imprecise identity. He is emblematic of her wasted ambitions, the goals unattained, the domestic prison she constructed for herself and her family. The title of the novel could have easily been called “The Woman in the House” instead of “The Boy on the Bus”.

The novel essentially calls into question whose identity crisis is really the precipice for Meg’s suspicions of Charlie. Is it Meg or is it Charlie that is really at stake? With this unclear motivation at its centre, the novel presents an eerily realistic account of a family in psychological limbo, with the characters bending and reaching over and through each other to determine and then escape their family’s dysfunctional existence. Their loneliness and pain on an individual and collective level bleeds through every spoken and unspoken word.

Schupack has created a crafty and engrossing mystery with her debut novel. Her sparse writing makes you want to keep reading in anticipation of having the answers unravel in one fell swoop. But the moment of revelation never comes as she makes the wise choice to maintain the unease of the reader, to not give them an easy out from the psychological web she has weaved. Schupack keeps the identity conundrum of The Boy On The Bus tightly wound and unresolvable. And it is this deliberate approach that makes it almost impossible for the reader to keep a distance from the characters and their plights.

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