BOY by Brent van Staalduinen

Review by Deborah Vail

Dundurn Press, September 2020

312 pages, paperback, $21.99 CDN, 9781459745889

Ages 16+, Grades 11+

Young Adult, Contemporary Realism, Fiction, Magic Realism

There are methods to deal with the continual presence of dead loved ones, but only one that keeps others from thinking you are crazy. You don’t talk about them with language that suggests you can see what might not be there. That you believe in that kind of thing. You don’t tell the history teacher you’ve come back to fetch your dead sister who’s standing a breath away from him.

What would you think of a high school senior who wears his cadet uniform to school, rides a bright orange bicycle, and talks to himself? What if you discovered that his older sister, Charlie, was killed eight years earlier in a motor vehicle crash. Could you believe that her ghost is always with him?

In BOY by Brent van Staalduinen, an acceptance letter to Royal Military College has just arrived for Boy. But Boy—named after Boy George, a pop-star from his parents’ era—needs to salvage his fast-slipping grades before graduation for the offer to stand. The end of the school year fast approaches, and impossible responsibilities threaten to derail his dream of becoming a pilot. When he meets Mara, a mysterious man who can stop time, Boy thinks his new friend’s gift could be a way to fix past mistakes. But which mistakes, and whose? The perfect storm is setting up for Boy’s failure, as he struggles to stay the course, protect his baby brother, and secure a future for himself in the military.

Boy Cornelius McVeigh is a compassionate and intelligent eighteen-year-old who is saddled with more tragedy than most people deal with in an entire life. His father is in prison for causing the car accident that killed his sister and her best friend. His alcoholic mother is now living with the best friend’s father and they have a baby. Each time they take off on a bender, Boy is left to care for his baby brother, and to fret if they will ever return—alive.

The author has created a young male character with deep integrity and respect for the women in his life, even the ones who may not deserve it. The reflective writing is well matched to a protagonist who is so shocked by life that his story seems surreal. Told in third person, present tense, but with layered backstory, the narration encourages contemplation of a fantastical idea; what if we could stop time? It also explores issues of personal responsibilities, the value of friendships, and the importance of knowing when to ask for help.

With each shocking event leading up to the final act, it seems inevitable that Boy will lose his dream and possibly his baby brother, whom he loves dearly, until an estranged grandmother shows up and offers hope. Her presence builds another layer of complicated backstory, and it becomes clear that the conflicts Boy has faced with his parents did not begin with them.

The story is set in the author’s hometown of Hamilton, Ontario, and vivid descriptions of Lake Ontario offer the sense of realism. A ghost and a time-stopping man steer it toward magic realism. However, this reader debated whether Boy really did see the ghost of his sister or whether perhaps his grieving process was severe enough to prompt the visions. And perhaps the time-stopping man was an imaginary friend with a gift powerful enough to fix Boy’s messed up world. The idea that this novel may be interpreted either way is another testament to this author’s skill set.

BOY by Brent van Staalduinen, is more than a coming-of-age story, it is a warning. Time moves forward, no matter what. Mistakes cannot be undone, but what counts is how a person lives with whatever backstory they are born into and that working toward a dream is the only way to move forward. Anyone who is struggling to cope with family traumas or is grieving the loss of a sibling or best friend will find solace in this deeply nuanced story about a teenager who strives to succeed and be kind, no matter what.

Deborah Vail holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC. Her fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in The Antigonish Review,Grain Magazine, and The New Quarterly and reviews of noteworthy books in Prism, The Antigonish Review, and Young Adulting Review.

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