Written by Karen Perry — Harry and Robyn are a young Irish couple who, together with their toddler son Dillon, enjoy a perfectly care free life in Tangiers. They live in the moment, concerned mainly with capturing the beauty of the Moroccan sunset on canvas. They share their existence with a circle of free living locals who move in and out of their lives, but all orbit around the eccentric but charismatic Cozimo.
The young couple’s bohemian existence is shattered forever when an earthquake swallows up their three-year-old son, whose body is never found. Their grief is compounded by the guilt they feel that neither was present when their son disappeared forever. Just before the earthquake, Harry had left the sleeping boy alone for the few minutes it took to reach Cozimo’s house on a birthday-related errand for the still working Robyn.
The Boy That Never Was opens with the horrific circumstances of that day and then flashes forward to the present. It’s five years later and the couple have settled into a new life in Ireland. They seem to have made progress in dealing with their unbearable grief. Even Harry has won through due to counseling and therapy, despite his belief that Dillon might still be alive. After all, his son’s body was never found. So it is a real emotional sucker punch when, caught up amidst an anti-austerity protest in the streets, Harry catches a glimpse of Dillon but the boy vanishes yet again, this time in the chaos of the crowd, led by an unknown woman.
Thus begins Harry’s downward spiral into an obsession that he cannot share with anyone, even his wife, until he has some concrete proof that their son is indeed alive. As he obsesses, we wonder whether he’ll track the boy down, or if he hallucinated the whole thing. We are led to wonder about Harry’s sanity when he weighs the evidence of grainy CCTV footage equally with an encounter with an Egyptian mummy in London, a tarot card reading and a coincidental green amulet – all of which he interprets as signs that Dillon is indeed alive and beckoning.
Thinking something’s wrong, Robyn suspects infidelity and snoops around in Harry’s workshop. She discovers a series of sketches of Dillon, whose portrait has aged in Harry’s imagination, the latest portrait dated in the near present. Eventually, Robyn’s chance encounter with a central figure from their Morocco days, a man named Garrick, fuels the credibility of Harry’s evidence. The resurfacing of Garrick is a new variable that brings the couple closer to the mystery of Dillon.
The Boy Who Never Was is less crime fiction than a story of grief and redemption, but with a mystery at its core. As such, the authors (Karen Perry is a pseudonym for joint authors Paul Perry and Karen Gillece) create a compelling portrait of a marriage where trauma strikes and long-dormant secrets are exposed as a result. We alternate between Harry and Robyn’s perspectives with each chapter and the drama, and the switching of viewpoints is most absorbing. We learn in turn from Robyn about Harry’s demons and from Harry his torment over not being able to share his feelings. As Harry’s investigation progresses we learn from Robyn that she has some demons of her own left behind in Morocco. When we finally learn the answers we also realise they had been asking the wrong question all along, and head towards a hectic showdown where the truth almost comes too late.
The novel’s pace sustains interest, but its sensational plot is more of a draw than the characters themselves. The feelings of the couple are given a thorough treatment, as are Robyn’s disapproving parents, but the supporting characters do not have much life in them, and all concerned perform in circumstances that strain credibility.
Recommended for readers of challenging mysteries that also plumb the dynamics of marital relationships.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars