The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey


The developments in the lives of three teenager siblings is the heart of this book; their lives change when they discover a boy who had been knifed and left to die in a field.  Their discovery saved his life. The three are Matthew, 18, Zoe, 16, and Duncan, 14 and they live in a village near Oxford in a comfortable and loving family. While the knifing is a key event and we do learn about the victim Karel who was on his way home from work, much remains mysterious about the attack.

Details about various aspects of the characters and events stick with me. The description of Hugh Price, the police detective they spoke to, is one. The many detective novels and TV shows Matthew had watched “had given him an image of this tribe of men who drank too much, shaved too little, were oddly erudite, seldom happily married, and in general behaved more like the villains they were trying to catch than the citizens they were trying to protect. Often they had some arcane hobby:  growing roses, listening to opera.” Hugh Price displays none of these and in fact has only a minor role in the proceedings, though his kindness and thoughtfulness for the three siblings is notable.

The effect of such a traumatic event on each one is explored; the fact that they are asked not to tell anyone about their role diminished it. In the case of Zoe, “She was still going to school, still studying, joking around with Moira, doing her chores, but it was as if her hair had stopped growing.” What a perfect way to describe it; something important happened, but no one can see the change.

Matthew experiences some dramas typical of teenage life while at the same time undertaking an investigation of the attack. “His father had told him the word “clue” came from the Anglo-Saxon for thread, and that was what he was looking for, a thread that would lead him from something small, something everyone else had overlooked, to another thing and another, each a step closer finding the assailant.” After the police find the assailant, the detective respects Matthew enough to describe what happened.

Duncan, it turns out, had been adopted. The trauma of finding the boy made him dream of his “first mother” and he is moved to try to find her. He expresses himself through art, so much that one of his teachers tells him his art is wonderful, but he does need words too. One day when he and his father were driving together, his father tells him about the experience of losing his father:

I remember after Dad died, our house seemed empty for months, even when we were all home. We were just pretending to be ourselves.”

What did that mean? Duncan thought. He pictured his father and Granny wearing masks exactly like their faces, speaking in voices that were almost, but not quite, their own.

An experience unrelated to the trauma of finding the boy was the three learning their father is having an affair and they dread their mother learning of his betrayal. The book ends with a dip into their lives eight years later, a satisfying way to end the book. The author explores how this traumatic event they experienced in a tangential way fit into and affected their lives, This is an engrossing and appealing book.

Margot Livesey, The Boy in the Field, Harper, 2020, 256 pages. Available from the public library (I read the kindle version).

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