Alex Connolly is ten years old, likes onions on toast, and can balance on the back legs of his chair for fourteen minutes. His best friend is a 9000-year-old demon called Ruen. When his depressive mother attempts suicide yet again, Alex meets child psychiatrist Anya. Still bearing the scars of her own daughter’s battle with schizophrenia, Anya fears for Alex’s mental health and attempts to convince him that Ruen doesn’t exist. But as she runs out of medical proof for many of Alex’s claims, she is faced with a question: does Alex suffer from schizophrenia, or can he really see demons
And here's what I thought: I so, so, so enjoyed this book. I found I couldn't put it down, and when I did, when it was time to make dinner, I was picking it up again for just a page and then talking about the book to my husband. In fact, I started reading something to him from the book ... and then had to take care of dinner. I always tell myself, the book will be there, the book can wait. Burned dinner isn't fun.
The story has some different threads running through it. We have Alex, the boy who says his best friend is a demon named Ruen, and we have Anya, a child psychiatrist who is determined to help Alex, but who has some issues of her own. And, we have the backdrop of not only Belfast, whose history influences its present-day, but also a play that Alex is starring in: a modern retelling of Hamlet. You wouldn't think that has much to do with anything, but it does, especially when you think about the story of Hamlet, and how Alex has a missing father.
So let's start with Alex. We get his perspective in the story through his diary entries, which he always starts with a joke. The jokes tend to be darkly funny, and he explains that "I want to start every entry with a new joke so I can keep in character. That means I can remember what it feels like to be the person I'm playing, which is a boy called Horatio." (p 7) Alex is pretty mature for his age, but when you consider that his mother doesn't take the best care of him, and he's more in the position of taking care of himself, and of her, then that makes sense. He first meets Ruen when he's at school, and explains that "I wasn't scared because I didn't know a demon was a thing. I thought it was just the name of the shop near my school that sold motorbikes." As a reader, you have your own ideas about what a demon is, however, and none of them mean that a demon is a good creature at all. You are sure he isn't really there to help Alex. However, Alex isn't afraid of Ruen (at least, not at first), and even though Ruen can appear in a scary manner, he sees him as a friend. In fact, he explained "Now I'm ten I'm much older so I kind of know more about demons but Ruen's not like that. I think everyone's got it wrong about demons, just like they did about rottweilers."
And what about Ruen? I found him to be an interesting character. He's dark and he is scary, mostly because there is a menace that surrounds him. However, I found him to be fascinating. Alex states that Ruen is 9000 human years old and can speak more than 6000 languages. And, he tells Alex that he is a "Harrower," although we don't learn for a long time what that means. And when it is revealed, we learn that a Harrower is close to the top of Hell's hierarchy. There's a lot about how the purpose of demons is to remove choice from humans (which is pretty bleak). Ruen, through Alex, tells Anya, (p 143) "My job is to go in after the barriers have been broken, after the action has been taken, even after regret has sunk its fangs deep into memory. And then I rake the soul until it is ripe for the seeds of doubt and hopelessness for which no human language has adequate lexicon." This is written in a way I found beautiful, and haunting. I can tell the author is a poet, as well (she is, and has won awards for her poetry).
So, is Ruen real? The way that Alex talks about him, and what Ruen says through Alex, starts to make it seem that he might be real. And as I was reading this, I started to wonder what was real, and wasn't real, and where this was all going.
And what about Anya? She comes into the story as Alex' psychiatrist, called in to help him on the anniversary of her daughter's suicide (this is not a spoiler - this is up-front when we meet her). Her struggles with her own daughter's schizophrenia have a huge influence on her, personally and professionally, and it seems to drive the connection between herself and Alex. But, professionally, she is trying to do the right thing, and figure out how to help Alex. When she encounters Ruen, herself, you can feel her reeling for an explanation, and actually, it feels like she is unraveling a bit, as well.
I got completely swept up in this book. The combination of the beautifully crafted prose and the characters, and the steady pace, caught my attention and held it. And then .... I got the big surprise. And no, I'm not giving away what it is. Suffice to say, once I finished the book, I started combing through it all in my mind, looking for clues.
And that's what made this such a fantastic read --- that as soon as I finished it, I wanted to start it over again. I could imagine these characters in my mind so clearly, that I almost didn't want to let them go. I found this book to be an exploration of deep personal pain, of characters who reach for any kind of comfort they can find, in the dark, when it's just themselves and their demons (whatever, and however, those demons may be). At first, I thought it would just be a psychological thriller, but the way the author delves deeply into her characters really made this an outstanding read.
First lines: 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 threee, and his favorite things are Mozart, table tennis, and rice pudding.
I chose this book from my TBR (to be read) jar --- I'm determined to choose at least one per month.