All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Boy At The Keyhole by Stephen Giles

on October 16, 2018

The Boy At The Keyhole
Stephen Giles
Penguin Michael Joseph
2018, 261p
Copy courtesy Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

A haunting, impossible-to-put-down thriller set almost entirely in a large and forbidding English mansion, in 1961.

England, 1961. Samuel’s mother has been away for 113 days.

Now it’s just Samuel and Ruth, the housekeeper, alone in the once-great house. His mother is abroad, purportedly tending to her late husband’s faltering business. Samuel yearns for her return, but knows she must have had her reasons for leaving in the middle of the night, without saying goodbye.

Although Samuel receives occasional postcards from his mother, her absence weighs heavily on his mind. And when his friend plants a seed of suspicion about Ruth, who rules the house with an iron fist, a dangerous idea is born. What if Ruth is responsible for his mother’s disappearance?

Samuel is soon obsessed with finding answers. Is Ruth the one person in his life who truly cares for him? Or is she a killer with a murderous plan? And will Samuel be able to uncover the truth before it’s too late?

Artful and deliciously claustrophobic, The Boy at the Keyhole is a story of truth and perception, and of the shocking acts that occur behind closed doors.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this story. This is the first book for adults by an author who has successfully written for children and it centres around a boy named Samuel. His father has passed away and his mother is gone, having left without saying goodbye some 113 days ago in order to travel to America, the land of her birth, to secure funding to take over the family business. It’s failing badly and there needs to be a huge injection of capital. She has left Samuel in the care of Ruth, the housekeeper and now basically sole staff, except for William, the gardener. The house is large, a manor really and would’ve come equipped with plenty of staff during good times. But those were long ago.

Samuel desperately misses his mother and lives for the random postcards that show up, detailing what city she is visiting now. He keeps an atlas with pins stuck in it, tracking this mother’s journey across America. More than anything he wants his mother to return to him but the postcards never talk of such things, nor does Ruth, who briskly sweeps aside most talk of his mother, saying she’ll be home whenever she is. With the suspicious minds of little boys, Samuel and his friend wonder if his mother is even in America……or did Ruth do something to her?

For a child of Samuel’s age (9), it’s a long time to be without contact from a parent, especially when the other parent is no longer around also. He is desperate for his mother, his very existence seems to revolve around her return. The character of Ruth is an odd one – on one hand, she continues to stay and care for Samuel, despite the fact that there’s pretty much nothing in it for her. The money Samuel’s mother has left has run out and she has to bake and sell her wares in order to feed them both. But she’s not at all maternal, there are times when she doesn’t even seem to particularly like Samuel and there are times when she displays shocking cruelty towards a small child, a small child who is struggling with this current situation. There were times when Ruth was also deeply compassionate in her own way towards Samuel as well, trying small things to make him feel more hopeful or secure. She was a complete contradiction and to be honest, probably written that way so that you could see the potential for her having manipulated circumstances or things not being as they seem.

Not going to lie, I did struggle with this. It’s not a long book but it feels very slow. Lots of Samuel just creeping around this big old house (which is his house) but yet Ruth appearing out of nowhere telling him he’s not allowed in this room or that room and to go and do this or that. I know she’s in charge of him but she’s the sort of “do as I say” rather than explaining things to him or asking him to do things and Samuel is a typical 9yo boy who is missing his parents and trying to stretch his wings a little. He is very creative in defying her but she always ends up turning up and catching him and it got a bit repetitive. I think the problem for me was just how awful Ruth was in a few scenes, which made it hard to buy that she was actually trying to protect him in some others. Perhaps some of this is the setting – 1961 and crumbling aristocracy or money, kids being seen and not heard I guess but Ruth is a shade too awful at times for me. I can understand Samuel coming to think she had killed his mother and stuffed her in the cellar. Because of this, the ending didn’t work for me either. It just didn’t flow for me, felt jerky and cut away and I had to go back and re-read to make sure I had actually understood what had happened.

A quick read but unfortunately I did not love this.

Book #173 of 2018


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