Title: The Boy Who Could See Demons
Author: Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Published: First published 10 May 2012; this edition published 13 August 2013
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: psychological thriller, fantasy
People look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon. “Don’t you mean, you have demons?” they ask. “Like a drug problem or an urge to stab your dad?” I tell them no. My demon is called Ruen, he’s about five foot three, and his favorite things are Mozart, table tennis, and rice pudding.
That’s Alex, a highly intelligent, totally charming but very troubled ten-year-old boy. And as he mentioned, he has a demon named Ruen, although Ruen is not quite as nice as Mozart, table tennis or rice pudding. He always takes one of four horrific forms, and while he claims to be Alex’s best friend, he often harasses and terrifies him too. But as a gifted, eccentric child living in an Irish ghetto with a severely depressed and neglectful mother, Alex has no other friends or companions.
When Alex’s mother Cindy is hospitalised after her fourth suicide attempt, child psychiatrist Anya Molokova is tasked with treating Alex. She believes that he may have early-onset schizophrenia and that Ruen is a clear indicator of this. While Alex’s social worker wants to improve his home-life and keep the family together, Anya wants Cindy declared an unfit mother so that she can medicate Alex.
Anya, however, can’t help but drag her own issues into the case. Her daughter Polly suffered from schizophrenia and died as a result. Anya has never gotten over the loss and knows that she needs to be very careful about projecting her daughter onto Alex as an attempt to make up for what happened in the past.
For the reader, the story is a different sort of conundrum, with the primary question being – is Ruen real or not? For the most part, the answer seems to be a definitive yes. Half of the narrative is composed of Alex’s diary, and he gives us a sense of what a serious presence Ruen is in his life, not to mention all the other demons he sees wandering around all the time. Obviously, his POV is deeply subjective and therefore unreliable, but Alex tells us things that about Ruen that suggest he’s real. For example, Ruen takes nightmarish forms that go beyond the mind of a ten-year-old. None of them are pleasant, and even the more benign ones make Alex uncomfortable at the very least. Ruen also tells Alex things that he couldn’t know otherwise, and this frequently comes out in Anya’s portion of the narrative, forcing her to consider the possibility that Alex can really see demons. It might have been more intriguing, perhaps, if Ruen’s reality were more uncertain, but personally I like the element of horror he brings to the novel.
Then there are little details that make you doubt Ruen’s existence, at least briefly. For example, two of Ruen’s forms resemble Alex. As ‘Ghost Boy’, Ruen looks exactly like Alex “only in a funny kind of way: He has my exact same brown hair and is as tall as me and even has the same knobbly fingers and fat nose and sticky-out ears, but he has eyes that are completely black and sometimes his whole body is see-through like a balloon.” When he takes the ‘Old Man form’, he looks frighteningly ancient but he dresses like Alex, in old tweed suits (Alex’s wears the too-big suits he found in a wardrobe in their house; his mother can’t afford normal children’s clothing and Alex seems to like his bizarre outfits). Things like this imply that Ruen is in some ways a reflection of Alex, raising the possibility that he’s just a product of Alex’s imagination.
And Alex is clearly not your average ten-year-old. He’s an amazing kid and a wonderful character. He’s lived a poverty-stricken life in an Irish ghetto, been neglected by his depressed mother, and witnessed her four attempted suicides. He doesn’t hold any of it against her though – he cares about her, and wants to make a better life for her (although this in itself is quite sad, given that he’s only ten). He’s a sweet, independent child with a lively mind. He’s involved in a modern production of Hamlet featuring child actors and he plays Horatio with flair and dedication. I loved reading the diary entries that made up his half of the narrative. The fantasy side of the novel is couched in his POV, which is quirky, funny, tragic, disturbing – all good things to me.
Anya’s narrative is quite different – serious, analytical. It’s not quite as enjoyable, but it’s not bad, giving the reader the realist perspective on Alex’s story. Anya tells us a lot about child psychiatry and her theories about Alex’s behaviour and Ruen’s presence. She tends to dismiss or weakly rationalise what she can’t explain (like how Alex seems to know about Polly) but you can easily see how certain details about Ruen lead her to interpret him as a delusion. She also describes links between children’s mental illness in Ireland and the country’s turbulent history with terrorism. Her belief that Alex needs to be medicated for schizophrenia looks like a serious mistake to the reader – Alex seems perfectly sane and needs decent housing more than drugs – but I didn’t dislike her because she clearly cares about Alex. Her slowly-revealed backstory with Polly also lends emotional weight to her narrative, so that even when you don’t agree with Anya, you can empathise with her.
I like the psychological entanglements of plots like this, but the pace also picks up as Ruen becomes increasingly sinister and demanding. It was a great read… except for the ending.
Up until a certain point The Boy Who Could See Demons is complex and full of uncertainties. It’s a great clash between fantasy and the psychological thriller. I had no idea how it could be resolved, but as I read I kept thinking about possible solutions and twists, happy endings and devastating ones. And, admittedly, I was still quite surprised by the way it turned out. Sadly, my surprise was matched by my disappointment, because the ending takes an otherwise interesting and unusual book and turns it into a tired old cliché that I hadn’t expected to see. I wanted to send the book back and ask for a more daring and inventive rewrite of the last chapter, those few pages where it all went south.
But it is what it is. I think it’s worth reading if you like psychological thrillers, and Alex is a lovely character. You might be annoyed, as I was, that it suddenly fails to be as good as it could have been, but that doesn’t make it a bad book.